Encounter of the first kind

John Garvey
(Repoduced with the permission of Commonweal)

Abstract (Article Summary)

An obituary for Andre Borisovich Bloom, who died on Aug 4, 2003, is presented. Also known as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the head of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Church in Great Britain was a remarkable man who changed many lives through his writing, his preaching, and his personal witness.



Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the head of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Church in Great Britain, died on August 4,2003. He was a remarkable man who changed many lives, mine among them, through his writing (the way I first encountered him), his preaching, and his personal witness.

Born Andre Borisovich Bloom in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1914, he trained as a physician in France, and while working as a doctor joined the Resistance against the German occupation. He took secret monastic vows during that period, and was professed as a monk in 1943. Ordained a priest in 1948, he was sent to London to serve the emigre Russian community, eventually becoming metropolitan, a rank in Russian Orthodoxy second only to the patriarch. As exarch of Western Europe, he served as the patriarch's representative. But when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union and was denounced by a senior bishop of the Moscow patriarchate, Metropolitan Anthony resigned as exarch and wrote a letter to the London Times in which he praised Solzhenitsyn and said, "He believes that a nation which cannot openly face its recent past, cannot solve its problems in the present and in the future. In his love and endeavor he does not stand alone in Russia or abroad." Bloom held a service during which he prayed for the rights of dissidents and, he told me, the phone was ringing when he got back to his apartment. Moscow had heard of it already, and church officials there were not happy.

Bloom and his mother lived as simply as they could when he lived with her in Paris; they kept only what they needed, and gave the rest away. When I visited him in London, I noticed that there was nothing extra in his apartment. It wasn't exactly ostentatiously ascetic, but it was a very spare place. He was ascetic without making it dramatic; it was more a radical simplicity, and as a good obituary in the Independent noted, he believed that Orthodoxy was the simplest way. That obituary mentioned his fondness for Evangelical Christians, and quoted him as saying he never preached Orthodoxy, only Christ.

Some of his affection for Evangelicals might have come from his own conversion experience. he was an atheist as a teenager. When a priest addressed his youth group, he was so irritated by the lecture that he wanted to refute him by using the Bible itself. He asked his mother which Gospel was the shortest, sat down with the New Testament, and began to read the Gospel of Mark. After a few chapters he became so strongly aware of Christ's presence that he said he never after that experience doubted the existence of God.

He was the author of a number of good books on prayer and the spiritual life, including Living Prayer, which my father's company, Templegate, published in the United States. That's how my wife Regina and I met Bloom. We were in England, and I wanted to see if he might do another book for Templegate. He suggested that another book might be in the offing, although this was a little vague in the correspondence that preceded the trip - I learned later that his books were generated by talks and were transcribed by others; he never wrote anything for publication - but he agreed to meet us. When we rang, he came to the door himself-unusual for a bishop-and invited us upstairs.

His apartment, as I said, was spare. He offered us tea, and there was a dish of candies for visitors. What struck us most of all was his gaze-piercing, totally focused. I can honestly say that I have never met a man whose presence was so much like fire. It was as if my own life had been thrown into relief, and revealed for the sloppy thing it was and is; but instead of being discouraging, the experience was encouraging: this is what we are called to, and it is possible with God's help.

We got business out of the way early in the conversation, and the rest of the afternoon shaded into dusk as we talked. Bloom was not in any way a proselytizer, and when I spoke of my interest in Orthodoxy he said that if that was where God wanted me to be, it would become clear to me, but in God's time and not my own. He counseled patience, and said, "Never join a community that does not pray." He spoke of his own way of receiving converts. Anyone interested in joining the Orthodox community would be assigned to a family in the parish, and would spend the liturgical year worshiping with them. It was important, he believed, to make sure that people encountered Orthodoxy as it is actually lived, at home and in the parish church, rather than to have an idea of Orthodoxy. The people to whom the potential convert was assigned must have been Orthodox for at least five years. Asked why, he said, "I want them to have lost their convert's enthusiasm."

When we left, one detail impressed me greatly. It was November and cold outside. Regina had made a grey cloak, lined, and as he was helping her into it Metropolitan Anthony said, "This is beautiful work. Did you make it yourself?" I liked the thought that a person so ascetic could be at the same time so attentive and observant - a fruit of true asceticism, perhaps.

An English Catholic theologian once told me that he thought Metropolitan Anthony was a witch. When I asked what he meant, he said, "Those eyes." I answered that what you see in those eyes came from something true. I know only that Regina and I were overwhelmed by what we met in him, and were changed in some way. Andrew Walker's obituary in the Independent quotes Metropolitan Anthony: "No one could turn toward eternity if he had not seen in the eyes or in the face of one person the shining of eternal life." I think that is what we saw there.

John GarveyCommonweal. New York: Dec 5, 2003. Vol. 130, Iss. 21;  pg. 6

ISSN: 00103330

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