Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | August 12, 2010

Finishing Peter France’s Patmos

“There is a story from Mount Sinai of a pious brother who called at the monastery there and, seeing the other brothers at work, quoted loftily to the abbot, “Do not work for the food which perishes” [John 6:27], and insisted on being given a vacant cell where he could pray and meditate, quoting the Scriptures again: “Mary has chosen the best part” [Luke 10:42]. The abbot left him there all day, and as the ninth hour (when food was served) came round, the pious brother sat with his eyes fixed on the door, waiting to be called to the table. When nobody called him, he came out to see the abbot, asking if the brothers did not eat. “Of course,” said the abbot, “but you are a very spiritual man and do not need earthly food. We are fleshly and need to eat – that is why we work. But you, like Mary, have chosen the best part and prefer to spend your time in prayer.” The pious brother apologized for his display of self-righteousness and the abbot, using his discernment, said: “Surely Mary hath need of Martha, and it is thanks to Martha that Mary is praised.”

I loved this tale and particularly the balance in its close… a balance I’ve not seen as often, though I’m becoming aware is more common than I know.

Peter France’s book is to be highly recommended as a vignette into life on an Orthodox island and its impact on one agnostic who finds his way into the Church. He fills the book mostly with observations on the life he and his wife find there in retiring toward a more sustainable, back-to-basics rusticism from their British hustle and bustle with the BBC. For the most part it is a light jaunt and very enjoyable, and this might make it a good read for someone’s first brush with Orthodoxy.

Yes, there are some dogmatics where he tries to explain how a reasonable atheist found his way into traditional Christianity, and yes, he goes lightly over the substance of his conversion, but these sections are just enough to whet the appetite while still leaving plenty of room for folks to get the rest from the more usual resources. What he manages is the record of  how the dream of the simple life came to include faith in God, the Church, and Orthodox Christianity. Not the sort of thing you expect from hardened  gumshoe reporter ranging the full gamut of the religon beat, but an entertaining tale. There’s no sales job, no “pitch” and  no drama along the road other than a few real estate transactions here and there. And yet it’s clearly a distinct “retirement” story told from a sunny clime with a light touch suitable to what he describes as the heavenly lights of Patmos.

Far different form those emotional existentialist tales, or the intensity more appropriate to a monastic’s insight, France keeps himself respectfully at the edge rather endeavoring to relay his passage from the center of the heart. And I think this circumspection has much to offer us as an example of a balanced view of the place of one’s own conversion, and the manner in which it might be relayed so as to invite rather than browbeat the reader to “Come and See” for themselves.

Friendship played a formative role. His wife had converted years before, but left him to his own path and pace. Bishop Kallistos Ware was also a long-term friend as well. And then there’s that part where France mentions that despite his atheism, faithful christians had always ended up being his better friends. Amplify this experience with the understanding of friendship outlined by Fr. Thomas Hopko

It’s a gentle book, and a quick read. Should probably be available in most parish libraries, fitting into that category that attests to the do-ability of conversion. Sure, we have the lives of the saints, but before we step along their way, the task of becoming Orthodox too often seems a daunting challenge of its own. France does a good job at dispelling this notion.


  1. The book is not only “gentle” and “quick”,
    but superbly written as well

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