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Keswick man Father John is a most unorthodox priest

WITH his white beard, long vestments and silver crucifix, Father John Musther, 70, is every inch the Orthodox priest. Picture Obi-Wan Kenobi with bling.

fatherjohn 2801
FRESCO: Father John Musther, an Orthodox priest who is based in Keswick, in his attic which doubles as a chapel complete wiith religious icons

But we are not in Russia, Greece or Cyprus, the heartlands of the faith.

We are in Keswick, where John lives in a terraced house with his wife Jenny.

“Most people up here have no mental connection with Orthodoxy,” he says.

“They have heard of Catholics and Protestants but know absolutely nothing about Eastern Christianity.”

The only Orthodox priest in Cumbria, he ministers to a community of about 30.

Most have a Greek Cypriot background, bolstered by some English converts.

But you won’t find him knocking on your door, bashing bibles or stuffing leaflets through your letterbox.

Says John: “We don’t set out to convert people because we believe if you are living the Christian life based on holiness this will attract people and make them want to join.

“We are here if people need us. We are here for everybody.”

He leads the way to the top of the stairs in his home at Greta Villas.

Nothing can prepare you for the dazzling array of saints which solemnly return your gaze from the walls.

It is difficult to believe we are still in Keswick and that we haven’t been transported to some corner of the eastern Mediterranean.

The icons and frescoes in the private chapel are part of a tradition of sacred portraiture stretching back more than 1,000 years into the mists of the Byzantine Empire, to the foundation of the faith itself.

John says: “This is a way of presenting the Gospels and all the saints down the ages that have influenced me.

“It is a tradition of lived holiness passed on from the early desert fathers. This is the authentic living tradition of saints.”

John’s love of the Orthodox faith began in his 20s when he met a charismatic Russian monk. At the time he knew little about Orthodoxy and was studying law.

“It was the turning point in my life,” John recalls.

“He told me that the purpose of Christian life is to ask Christ to send the Holy Spirit into our hearts so that he might cleanse us and make us like Christ.

“It summed up the whole of scripture in one sentence. I was gob-smacked.

“The thing that got me is that I knew this man lived what he talked about, and he knew it from experience.”

The monk had lived for many years on Mount Athos in northern Greece.

Armed with letters of introduction from his spiritual mentor, John later visited the monastic communities on the holy mountain where he met a cliff-top hermit who had requested one simple luxury: a pound-and-a-half of English tea.

Impressed as he was, he was still not ready to make the cultural leap to Orthodoxy, and instead spent 17 years in an Anglican monastery, a decision which his family at first struggled to accept.

He recalls: “They were not happy at all. My father said ‘well you won’t need any of my money’ and cut me out of his will.”

He wouldn’t see his family again for several years but when they were finally reunited they had noticed a change. For the first time, he seemed happy.

When he finally left the monastery he helped to run a half-way house in Brighton for people in need, including drug addicts.

It was here that he noticed a common thread running through their lives; the absence of a father.

He did his best to fill that gap in their lives and some of them still telephone to ask for his advice.

The shelves in his living room are crammed with books on the church fathers, the history of the faith, hagiography and Celtic Christianity.

Fr John, who has a degree in theology from Oxford University, has written his own book on the saints which takes the reader on an adventure through 2,000 years of Christian history.

But his main role is leading prayer at the Sunday liturgy in Braithwaite in a chapel made available by the Methodist Church to help him minister to his growing congregation.

A few stray Methodists have been known to wander into the chapel.

Some stayed. Others fell over one another to get to the door.

The colourful icons and overpowering incense may come as a shock to those brought up in a more austere religious tradition, but for many the chapel came as something of a revelation.

One man was so impressed by his chance discovery of the chapel that he declared it the best thing to have happened to him all week.

John will not pester you to join the church, but his door is always open for those who need a friend.

For more information about Orthodoxy in Cumbria visit www. orthodoxcumbria. org

Have your say

PS ... Fr John is actually one of the most Orthodox Priests that I know

In Christ
Fr Irenaeus

Posted by Fr Irenaeus on 31 January 2011 at 11:50

Fr John lives the life of a living Saint. His book on the Saints is not as a result of academic knowledge (which he also has), but rather as a result of living the life and imparting that to others. It is an honour to know him and Jenny. God grantboth of you many years

In Christ
Fr Irenaeus

Posted by Fr Irenaeus on 31 January 2011 at 00:48

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