During my time at Chevetogne, I believe that I learned the most from being exposed to the full liturgical life of the Eastern Church, from the recitation of her hours of prayer to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and a number of liturgical and ritual practices unique to Orthodoxy, such as the practice of the censing of the whole Church during the daily offices and during the Divine Liturgy, the distinct way in which Holy Communion was received, the veneration of the Icons, and especially the rites of the Feast of the Theophany – which included the Royal Hours, the Liturgy of St Basil and its emphasis on the Baptism of the Lord in the Great Blessing of the Waters – a celebration which fortunately coincided with our visit.
Exposure to this rich liturgical life, in the awe-inspiring setting of the Byzantine Church at the monastery, was deeply enriching to my theological, ecclesiological and sacramental understanding as an English Christian whose spiritual formation and Christian life have wholly taken place within the Western Church. Although the fact that the liturgy was in foreign languages and lasted a lot longer than I was used to was a challenge, I found that it developed an appreciation within me of my very small place within the whole of the Universal Church, which spans across space and time, and certainly beyond my own petitions and language!
Beyond the liturgy, I found the daily rhythm of the monastic life to be something deeply formative, though slow to set in! Every aspect of the day had a deep sense of purposefulness to it, everything was considered – from the need to get up at 5.30 am for the morning office, to the regular hours of prayer, the meals taken in a dignified and companionable silence, so that by the time I got to the various periods of much-appreciated free time in between, I felt an inner determination to use them productively and, in whatever way, to the greater glory of the God whose worship flowed from the hours of prayer. It was deeply inspiring to see the vast array of duties and interests the monks were able to commit themselves to in their daily work: from the manufacture and development of incense to the maintenance of a vast library; from an attentive ministry of hospitality and welcome to vital scholarship which continues to build up the ecumenical movement and the Universal Church. It genuinely exposed me in a very real way to the vitality and work of those in the religious life, something of which I really feel other Christians of our generation would benefit from seeing and experiencing.
Discerning God’s call on my life, particularly a possible call to ordination, the time was invaluable, and I left the monastery strengthened and reassured both of my sense of vocation and of my place in the Universal Church. A genuinely wonderful experience, it broadened my horizons and gently nourished my vocation.
My recent trip to Chevetogne was a wonderful antidote to talk of ‘the Church’ going no further, for want of a better word, than the Latin West and perhaps not one I knew I needed. Regardless, to have encountered the Eastern Tradition in its fullness was a formative experience which I am extremely grateful for. Granted, Belgium is not a country where Orthodoxy dominates, and Chevetogne being bi-ritual in charism is not a monastic house where the Eastern Tradition reigns solely and supremely. Some may therefore say that an encounter with the East here is diluted. But in my view this didn’t detract in any way from the encounter with Orthodoxy I received there.
Rising at 5:30am, staying in a sparsely-yet-handsomely decorated room, eating meals corporately but in in silence, regular liturgies and prayers – these trappings of monastic life were too not alien to me and my experience of the western religious (monastic) life. However, it was the content of the liturgies in particular which taught me much about the Orthodox Tradition. Over the course of four days we participated in the daily rhythm of the Byzantine Chapel – and our trip coincided with the Feast of Theophany. Therefore, we were privileged to observe almost all of the major and minor hours either in their own right or as part of liturgies proper to the day, such as The Royal Hours or Great Compline. In addition, we witnessed the Liturgy of St Basil, and the blessing of the waters – once again proper to the celebration of Theophany.
There was a depth and a richness to these liturgies which I was touched by. First and foremost – the sung nature of the liturgies and the use of Slavonic languages alongside the vernacular gave the celebrations an ethereal dimension – it was clear that I was not attending a secular or civic event. Moreover, the varying tones of chant made it abundantly clear that neither was I at a western liturgy. Psalmody, chant, gestures, repetition – these things are by no means alien to the western tradition. But the tones of chant, the abundance of psalmody, the scale of repetition of the Kyrie and the regular signs of the cross displayed piety, richness, depth, and beauty – just a few virtues which I was pleased to witness.
What will I take from the few days I spent at Chevetogne? I am very happy that I was able to witness just a few days of what Eastern Religious life looks like. This allowed me to learn about what unites East and West as well as someone of the beautiful and rich aspects which are proper to Orthodoxy. Moreover, regardless of the micro-observations and experiences of the liturgy, I am happy that as an Anglican I now have something concrete which comes to mind when the word ‘Orthodoxy’ is used. That mysterious and sometimes distant-feeling veil has been lifted. There is a oneness to the Church in one sense, but in others there is a distinct division. East and West, Catholic and Anglican versus Orthodox to name just some of the divisions. It is important to understand Orthodoxy because it is part of the Universal Church, and yet is in many ways different to the West. I know this now, and I am very grateful for this experience and opportunity to get to know Orthodoxy better.
The most striking element of the trip was the wonderful liturgy that we experienced throughout the visit. It was an incredibly profound and solemn form of worship, and every aspect of one’s senses were engaged. The sharp smell of incense was infused in the crypt, and the beautiful icons covered the entirety of the walls so that there was no debate about the purpose of the gathering. The darkness was another feature which added immensely to the experience and at times the only light was the faint natural light of the windows, and the candles which were spread across the room. It felt extremely primitive in a sense, the lack of electric lighting and the smell of the burning candles. I also felt extremely connected to the early church, and our Christian forefathers. The crypt itself felt slightly like a cave, which brought to mind the early Christians who worship in the catacombs, would worship in secret for fear of persecution, but always the same intent and purpose – to worship Christ in word and sacrament. This sense of connection to the early church was heightened by the icons which looked at us we stood in silence and in prayer. The building truly focuses the mind on worship and the constant, stunningly powerful chanting of the monks was deeply contemplative.
As a church organist, it is only ever rare that I have been able to attend a church service without having to take an active role, and so for me the visit to Chevetogne was an opportunity to sit and pray, as well as to watch the unfurling of the liturgical theatre that is so important on a great, high feast day such as the Theophany. On this occasion, we started with Morning Prayer, then went straight into Vespers with the Divine Liturgy celebrated, as well as the blessing of water – the observance and reminder of baptismal vows as important in the Byzantine rite at Epiphany as at Easter, for us. I suppose in many ways the combination of surrounding artwork, incense, chanted prayers and music, might have caused a bit of a sensory overload, but I think it also allows one to focus one’s mind on one’s prayers. A fresco of the Magi visiting the Holy Family at the inn always brought me back round to pondering the miracle of the main event of the day that we were celebrating.
Though my language skills are sadly more limited than I would like, the element of participation that was afforded to us meant that one did not need to understand every word that was being said – and indeed, I think with French, Dutch, Flemish, German, Church Slavonic, Russian, a tiny bit of English being thrown around, and with a little Greek on the Church walls – there would be few people who would understand every word going. The nature of the music, chanted, unaccompanied, by the monks lulls one into a prayerful state. The constant repetition and rich, musical texture envelope you; and no one is in a rush to finish so once the service begins one enters a world that feels independent of time. Though I emerged knowing that it had been a long time since the start, I didn’t realise it had been about three hours. ‘My Father’s house is a house of prayer’.
I think two moments absolutely stick in my mind as being the most spiritually moving. At vespers, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated and then we were each given a small wax candle while the monks walked in procession into the main body of the church to bless the water. The monks chanted, an exceptionally long reading was proclaimed, and then we were invited to come forward and take a drink of the water and to be sprinkled with holy water. Then at Great Compline, celebrated in the evening of that same day, an Icon was brought forth and placed so that we could all, in turn, come before it to adore and to then be anointed.