A tour through England will uncover thousands of grey Gothic buildings that housed chapels, churches, and convents dating all the way back from the earliest foundings of Christianity in the UK. But, as a pilgrim there is only one place to go—the monastery of St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, England in Tolleshunt Knights, the largest county of London. This is the sole living monument of Orthodox monasticism there is in all of the UK. As a tama this Great Lent, I resorted to a pilgrimage there during the bitterly cold month of February.
HISTORY OF ST JOHN of BAPTIST
As with all Orthodox monasteries, the history of St John the Baptist in Essex starts with a spiritual journey and the guidance of a spiritual father. This father is Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain (Mt Athos) in Greece.
An uneducated soldier, Silouan (originally Simeon Ivanovich Antonov) left Russia when he was 27 and found his way to the Holy Mountain where he was received into St. Pateleimon’s Monastery known to house Russian-speaking brethren.
During a period of spiritual crisis, Silouan had a vision of Christ sitting on the throne of glory during liturgy as a deacon. From that experience, he felt so unified to Christ that his soul’s purpose transformed into an everflowing fountain of love and prayer for the salvation of all mankind. St Silouan’s prayer poetry reveal the deepness of love for the most outcast and despairing of the creation. Indeed in his writings, Saint Silouan reveals an intensity of soul that distills the essence of Orthodox theology: that God cannot be known without discovering the “deep heart” (Psalm 64:6) “because that is the place where God manifests Himself” (Remember Thy First Love, 69). In his icons he is depicted in deep repentance with tears running down his face and beard for the agony he felt at losing the grace of God. He typifies the soul’s agony in knowing it is separate from God. His sensitivity even extended to feeling love for the most difficult of persons—one’s enemies. Indeed his writings stand out for their compassion and the need for repentance, especially love for one’s enemies.
This saint, although barely literate, started gaining a following of spiritual children. One of those would be the future founder of the monastery of St. John the Baptist, Elder Sophrony Zacharov. Indeed, Father Sophrony was the direct spiritual descendent of Saint Silouan. The Elder compiled many of his writings and a biography of the saint. But beyond the knowledge of good words and sentiments, what Elder Sophrony wanted was to continue the inner ascetic practices of the incantation of the Jesus Prayer that he had witnessed on the Holy Mountain.
Elder Sophrony left Mt Athos and returned to Paris, where he had spent time as an art student before his conversion to Orthodoxy. In Paris he lived in a Russian senior citizen residence assisting the priest there. Soon several people, both men and women, who desired to live the monastic life attached themselves to the elder.
“They were allowed to live at the old-people’s home, using the repetition of the Jesus Prayer in lieu of liturgical books and eating the food that the old-age inhabitants didn’t eat,” (Wikipedia.org). It soon became apparent that an actual physical building had to be found to accommodate the souls who wanted to continue the ascetic tradition.
Providence led him to hear about an abandoned property near Maldon, England. It had belonged to a group of knights, the Tollshunt Knights in the name of the area, in the 12th century who had fallen in and out of favor with the monarchy. In the mid 1950s it was abandoned with an old barn used as a refectory. Under the blessing of the Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh at that time, the new community of St. John the Baptist was formed. The uniqueness of the monastery is that, from its beginning to the present, it houses both monastics and nuns as Elder Sophrony.
What started out as a humble community of six monastics now totals close to 40. It moved under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1965, becoming Patriarchal; later, the monastery would also be titled ‘Stavropegic‘.
Elder Sophrony garned the grace of “staretz” during this lifetime as pilgrims flocked for his guidance. Living from a small cell, the Elder kept the practice of unceasing prayer of the Jesus Prayer. He was endowed with the gift of clairvoyance. In fact, he was conscious of the hour of his repose. As there was no space to bury the dead on the monastery’s lands, the construction of an underground crypt had been initiated. The Elder said that he would not repose until the crypt was ready. Then, having been told of the expected completion date of 12 July 1993, Elder Sophrony stated that he “would be ready”. On the 11th, Elder Sophrony reposed; and on the 14th his funeral and burial were held, attended by monastics from around the world. Mother Elizabeth, the eldest nun, reposed soon after on the 24th, according to Elder Sophrony’s words that he would repose first, and she would repose soon after (Wikipedia).
The current Igoumen is Father Kyrill, but it is Archmandrite Zacharias, a British Cyriot, who carries the flame of inspiration and in turn serves as a direct disciple of Elder Sophrony. Father Zacharias, soft-spoken but very wise, receives a river of pilgrims on the weekend. He has penned several volumes that carry the Athonite tradition of awakening the deep heart through inner and outer ascetisicm. One that makes for profound contemplation during this time of Lent is Remember Thy First Love, my favorite.
Since its humble beginnings as an abandoned property, the monastery has flowered into the major spiritual hub of England with two resident halls, a major refectory that fits hundreds, and a new wing for future pilgrim quarters. Thanks to the skill of Mother Maria, a nun skilled in stone mosaics, the buildings have become adorned with mural-sized mosaic icons of Christ and the saints. There is a whimsical wall mosaic of Noah’s ark on the side of a resident hall that has become a visual synonym for the monastery.
While I was there the monks and nuns were in constant flurry of action, fixing doors that would not budge, cleaning up footpaths, cleaning stains with buckets and a toothbrush, pushing wheelbarrows with construction materials for the new buildings across the road.
The central church is still quite humble in its iconography, but the refectory’s walls are vibrant with gilded lines that lend an ethereal glow around the faces of the elect, so that the human and heavenly company commune around a mystical trapeza in pregnant silence.
The best way to get to the monastery is via auto. It takes 45 minutes from the outskirts of London.
To travel via tube, go to Liverpool Station and take a regional train to Witham station. Then take a taxi ride of 15 minutes to the gate (not cheap as the taxi cost 16 Pounds each way).
While it is possible to get accommodation as a pilgrim, you should make arrangements at least a month in advance as it fills up on the weekends with the Orthodox who visit from London. There is a reasonably priced Travel Lodge in Witham that is a viable alternative.
The best time to call the monastery is afternoon from 12 to 3 pm as the other times the monastics are busy with services.
The actual address is Rectory Rd, Tolleshunt Knights CM9 8EZ. The phone (44) ( 0)1621 816471.
Excerpts from the Writings of St Silouan the Athonite
Keep your mind in hell and do not despair”: the slogan of St. Silouan that reverberated throughout his ministry which he heard as a heavenly warning during his spiritual crisis
“I ask you to try something. If someone grieves you, or dishonors you, or takes something of yours, then pray like this: “Lord, we are all your creatures. Pity your servants, and turn them to repentance,” and then you will perceptibly bear grace in your soul. Induce your heart to love your enemies, and the Lord, seeing your good will, shall help you in all things, and will Himself show you experience. But whoever thinks evil of his enemies does not have love for God and has not known God.”
“The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God.”
“The soul that has come to know God fully no longer desires anything else, nor does it attach itself to anything on the earth; and if you put before it a kingdom, it would not desire it, for the love of God gives such sweetness and joy to the soul that even the life of a king can no longer give it any sweetness.”
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, IX.13)
“Pride does not allow the soul to set out on the path of faith. Here is my advice to the unbeliever: let him say, “Lord, if you exist, then illumine me, and I will serve you with all my heart and soul.” And for this humble thought and readiness to serve God, the Lord will immediately illumine him… And then your soul will sense the Lord; she will sense that the Lord has forgiven her, and loves her, and you will know this from experience, and the grace of the Holy Spirit will be a witness in your soul of your salvation, and you will want to cry out to the whole world: “The Lord loves us so much!” (St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, III.6)
“With all your power, ask the Lord for humility and brotherly love, because God freely gives His grace for love towards one’s brother. Do an experiment on yourself: one day ask God for love towards your brother, and another day – live without love. You will see the difference.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, XVI.8)
“We have such a law: If you forgive, it means that God has forgiven you; but if you do not forgive your brother, it means that your sin remains with you.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, VII.9)
“Love of God takes various forms. The man who wrestles with wrong thoughts loves God according to his measure. He who struggles against sin, and asks God to give him strength not to sin, but yet falls into sin again because of his infirmity, and sorrows and repents—he possesses grace in the depths of his soul and mind, but his passions are not yet overcome. But the man who has conquered his passions now knows no conflict: all his concern is to watch himself in all things lest he fall into sin. Grace, great and perceptible, is his. But he who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics.”
“We may study as much as we will but we shall still not come to know the Lord unless we live according to His commandments, for the Lord is not made known through learning but by the Holy Spirit. Many philosophers and scholars have arrived at a belief in the existence of God but they have not come to know God. And we monks apply ourselves day and night to the study of the Lord’s command but not all of us by a long way have come to know the Lord, although we believe in Him.”
Saying and Excerpts of Elder Sophrony Zacharov of Essex
“The Fathers of the fourth century left us certain prophecies, according to which in the last times salvation will be bound up with deep sorrows.”
“We must have the determination to overcome temptations comparable to the sorrows of the first Christians. All the witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection were martyred. We should be ready to endure any hardship.”
“Psychology brings the greatest evil to mankind today, because this science does not take into consideration Divine revelation, according to which man is created ‘in the image and likeness of God.’”
“The earthly life is for us a continual Judgment of God. If we follow Christ’s commandments, then the Grace of the Holy Spirit will come to us; but when we embark on them (even in small ways), God leaves us and we feel that abandonment about which outsiders do not even know. They do not understand what abandonment by God is.”
“The human soul is the image of God. It finds rest only when it attains perfection.”
“We do not think about how to change the world with our own powers. We strive to receive strength from God in order to act at all times with love.”
“When the grace of God comes to us, then we already here live in the dimension of eternity.”
“The most important thing in the spiritual life is to strive to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. It changes our lives (above all inwardly, not outwardly). We will live in the same house, in the same circumstances, and with the same people, but our life will already be different. But this is possible only under certain conditions: if we find the time to pray fervently, with tears in our eyes. From the morning to ask for God’s blessing, that a prayerful attitude may define our entire day.”
“Whoever gives up his cross cannot be worthy of the Lord and become His disciple. The depths of the Divine Being are revealed to the Christian when he is crucified for our Savior. The Cross is the foundation of authentic theology.”
“The Christian’s great tragedy is the inability to find a spiritual father. Laymen are themselves guilty in this, if they are unwilling to listen to the words of their spiritual instructors.”
“Life without Christ is tasteless, sad, and forlorn.”
One of the initial thrusts of the monastery was to publish the life and writings of St Silouan. These are various titles:
By Elder Sophrony
Monk of Mt Athos, Elder Sophrony’s biography of St Siloan, 1973
Wisdom of Mt Athos, 1975
His Life is Mine, 1977
We Shall See Him As He Is, 1985
Saint Silouan the Athonite, translated by Rosemary Edmonds, 1991.
By Archmandrite Zacharias
The Enlargement of the Heart, 2006
The Hidden Man of the Heart, 2008
Remember Thy First Love, 2010, commentary on the three stages of the spiritual life compiled from the sayings and counsels of Elder Sophrony
Man the Target of God, 2016.
by Sister Magdalen
Conversations with Children: Communicating our Faith, by Sister Magdalen, 2001.
Books about Elder Sophrony:
- Christ, Our Way and Our Lifeby Archimandrite Zacharias. “A Presentation of the theology of Archimandrite Sophrony.” (ISBN 1-878997-74-2).
- I Love Therefore I Amby Nicholas V. Sakharov. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003 (ISBN 0-88141-236-8).
- I Know a Man in Christ: Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologianby Hierotheos (Vlachos). Holy Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 2015 (ISBN 960-7070-89-5).
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