Our house is blessed. The priest arrived with breathtaking punctuality, sank into an armchair and proceeded to gas for an hour. The story of his life, the story of ours. It was all very interesting and congenial and as we edged closer to lunchtime I learned that a) he’s diabetic (forget the cake) and b) although Russian he grew up on the Cote d’Azur (so forget the tea and bring out the espresso pot).

Blessing done, like the Frenchman he is at heart, he was happy to nosh his way slowly through the contents of our cheeseboard. So a good result, all round.

Today we heard an absolute belter of a sermon from the same priest. This is the day the Orthodox Church commemorates the New Martyrs of Russia. We all know that 6 million died in the Nazi holocaust. What is less often remembered is that between 1918 and 1945  20 million died in Soviet Russia, among them more than a thousand monastics and clergy who were executed. The picture above is of one of those martyrs, Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Russia, sister of the last Tsarina.

After her husband’s assassination Grand Duchess Elisabeth became a nun  –  a nun of the rolled up sleeves and soup kitchen variety.  She was arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1918, transported to the Urals and thrown alive down an iron mine. We have her icon in our house. A useful prop, I always think, against the argument that Christianity is a load of superstitious hogwash of no more relevance than astrology, feng shui or Gaia worship. Would anyone submit to being thrown alive down a mine shaft to defend their right to hug a tree?

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