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
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
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
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
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.