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14 November 2014


THANKS to the compassionate Svetlana - we met her in my last diary column (26 September) - we got to St Petersburg. The international airport at St Petersburg has the largest Starbucks I have ever seen.

When I was last here, long before the demise of the Soviet Union, St Petersburg was Leningrad, and there was certainly no Starbucks at the airport or anywhere else in the city. Our hotel overlooked St Isaac's Cathedral. St Isaac's is a colossal building, vaster even than the huge pile in Hackney for which I was once responsible. During the Soviet era it was turned into a "museum of atheism".

What I found depressing about these "museums of atheism" - they were everywhere you went in the USSR - was not that they were always housed in closed-down churches. The sad and worrying thing about them was how persuasive they were. It is, alas, not that difficult to unearth material in Christian history that discourages belief in God.

That said, my travels behind the Iron Curtain have left me with memories that sustain my faith and shape my convictions to this day - not least about the status of children in the church. On that first visit to Leningrad, I visited a Russian Orthodox church somewhere in the grey suburbs. It was one of the few churches still permitted to hold services.

The church, with space for 1000, was packed with three times that number. When the time came for communion to be administered, such was the surge forward that I feared that the many children present would be trampled underfoot. I needn't have worried. They were allowed to squeeze through to the front: toddlers were passed from one willing pair of hands to another across the heads of the congregation; space was made for the mother with an infant in her arms. And the very youngest received the bread and wine.

I am getting out of touch these days, but I suspect that the Church of England still has to catch up with the other half of the Christian world.


CITTAVIVEKA means "the mind free of attachment". It is a good name for a Buddhist monastery anywhere, but especially if it is a Buddhist monastery in Chithurst. Ajahn Sumedho, witty as he is wise, gave the monastery its punning name when he set it up in the early '70s in a dilapidated property on Chithurst Lane, West Sussex.

Ajahn Sumedho ("Ajahn" means "teacher") was once Robert Jackman, and a medic in the United States Navy. He is now the senior Western representative of the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism. When I took sixth-formers to Chithurst in its early days, much work still had to be done on the place. The house was a wreck and the grounds were a jungle, although the monks laboured amid the chaos with a calmness exemplifying the dhamma they lived by.

Pat and I chose a mellow autumn day to visit Chithurst. I hadn't been back for nearly 40 years. There was the same open door and gracious welcome, and, today, no hint of the wasteland it all once was. Out of primal dereliction, great beauty has been made.

We spent an hour in meditation with the monks before the image of the one who "preached suffering and the end of suffering". The suffering of which I was most aware was that of my complaining carcass, disposed painfully on its cushion. Retreating to a chair, I sought to call my mind to order. But the mind - so taught the Buddha - "is as hard to control as the elephant Dhanapalaka in rut".

I coveted the capacity of the monks simply to sit still. Shortly before his death, Thomas Merton said of the tremendous carved Buddhas at Polonnaruwa, in Sri Lanka, that "such peace, such silence, can be frightening".

The same might have been said of those monks, motionless in mind as in body, before the figure of the Enlightened One. Certainly it is not what we are used to. So much of our Anglican liturgy is a licence to fidget.


THE City Lit, in London, the largest adult-education centre in Europe, teaches everything. At least, it did until cutbacks in government funding began to bite, and the City Lit was forced to close some courses. You will be relieved to know, however, that you can still learn about graffiti cross-stitch.

Last year, we did a course at the City Lit on art history. The purpose of the course was to teach us how to look at pictures. This year, we're back at the City Lit to learn how to paint them. Thus far, the great Masters have nothing to fear from my efforts. So far, I have managed fifty shades of grunge. But I will persevere. It is good for my soul, late in life, to accept that in most things I am a complete beginner. And I have found out something I had always wanted to know: what colour gamboge is.

Gamboge is a gorgeous word; but I'd never known where on the rainbow to look for it. Now, to my delight, I discover that it is the very same colour used for the robes of Buddhist monks such as those we met at Chithurst.

I knew a parish priest who, whatever the season, always dressed the altar in red. If ever I were back in business, I know what colour - 52 Sundays a year - I would go for.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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