Reflections of a Catechumen - Printable Version
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Reflections of a Catechumen - John Charmley - 21-01-2007
Dear Brothers and Sister in Christ,
It has been suggested that it might be helpful to others to share a little of the experience of being a catechumen in the BOC, and in that spirit I will, if others think it appropriate, share a few preliminary thoughts; if others do find it useful then I shall endeavour to persevere.
For each of us our spiritual journey is unique, and we each of us come to the borders of Orthodoxy like a traveller, weary and stained with the dust of the journey, wondering, hoping, but fearful all the same - what lies beyond the frontier posts?
One great source of hesitation was whether I was even at the right frontier? There were not lacking those who doubted that I was; Orthodox acquaintances (mostly EP) thought that the idea of joining up with a bunch of Monophysites was, even for me, an odd thing. Well, since their exclusivity and narrowness were, to me, a little odd, that seemed fair enough. So, the first thing for me was to be sure that I was not going from one schism (Anglicanism) to another.
Here the BOC website and its publications were most useful. What I liked from the start, and this was very different from what I had encountered elsewhere, was that there was no attempt at exclusivity or 'conversion'. There was an intelligent, eirenic account of what the BOC believed and how it was Orthodox. The more investigation I did - which included questioning Eastern Orthodox about where they felt the BOC was not Orthodox, the less convincing did the monophysite insults become. Even more attractive was that the BOC did not, as it were, hit back, with allegations about the EO; its members did indeed heed the Lord's injunctions to 'love one another'.
That being so, and having attended a service and talked with members of the BOC, including Abba Seraphim, the question became one of 'what now?' Here there was a sudden illumination. What use was there havering at the frontier - surely the time had come to advance across it? So, in September 2006 I asked Abba Seraphim if he would receive me as a catechumen - and, after we talked together for some time, he agreed and so received me.
We each of us arrive at the frontier with different baggage, but once across it, I suspect the difficulties are not dissimilar. I shall finish this first instalment with one or two reflections on the first few months.
The major problem is the scattered nature of the community. It is 120 mile round trip for me to the nearest BOC Church, and my personal circumstances do not make frequent visits a possibility. But here two things have helped. The internet, including this forum, and the existence relatively near by of another member of the Fellowship who is interested in holding an Orthodox Evening Prayer service twice a month. This has been a great help. But when I have been able to get to my BOC Church. St. Felix, I have found the experience so uplifting - and I cannot thank the congregation enough, or Fr. Tony, for the way they have welcomed me - and tolerate my difficulties in getting there. I know, that as I can get there more often, things will move along.
Reading had been a great resource, and the development of the OO Library had been a boon. It seemed to me essential to grasp the Christological problems that split the Church, and my route into this has been through St. Cyril of Alexandria, through whose writings I have been led deeper into the mysteries of Orthodoxy.
The publication of Our Daily Life was also a great moment, since it gave me a structure around which to build my day. I have found it a great help - not least in learning again how to pray. I feel I make little progress here at times, and my heart is sometimes dry - but to pray the Jesus Prayer is to open a spring in it - and whenever I have a spare moment, I try to pray it.
The English Katamarous, available at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://www.stmarkmi.org/">http://www.stmarkmi.org/</a><!-- m --> has also been a great help, as it enables me to do the daily readings of scripture; not a day goes by without my finding there something that I thought I knew, but somehow know differently now.
Finally, I have found the use of icons a great help in prayer.
This is long enough, and gives a notion of what one catechumen has been going through on the journey. Perhaps, God willing, there will be more in later posts.
Thank you - Mark Fletcher - 22-01-2007
Thank you for sharing this. God willing, there will be more posts in the weeks and months ahead. I for one would find it both interesting and helpful to read of your pilgrimage. You may even feel a small book "coming on"!
Reflections of a Catechumen (II) - John Charmley - 22-01-2007
Thank you for the kind reception - and for your question about literature, which is very much part of these reflections.
From the start of my time at a catechumen it was clear that Our Daily Life was going to be published, and I awaited it with eagerness; it has been a great blessing, but one does need to use it as it is intended - daily.
Other literature was a problem. Like you, I found +Kallistos' books distant from Oriental Orthodoxy in some important ways; although, of course, they are very valuable spiritually and intellectually. Through the Coptic site mentioned above, I found some of Pope Shenouda's works and was just so impressed by them that I carried on buying them; oddly enough e-bay had quite a few of them at one stage!
Tho other good resource was at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://www.coptichymns.net/index.html">http://www.coptichymns.net/index.html</a><!-- m -->, which has some good articles and excellent music; I can't recommend it strongly enough.
I took very seriously the advice not to try and do too much at once. My natural tendency would be that way, so it was in many ways a discipline not to. I try to do a reading from Our Daily Life every day, and to follow the Katamarous readings for the day; in addition I try to read either part of St. Cyril's Commentary on St John or another commentary; again, not too much, but enough to think on.
I have also tried, and occasionally succeeded, in making time every morning for some quiet time in prayer in my home-made icon-corner; failing that, I try to use the drive to work (I have about an hour each way) to pray aloud.
I also try to be conscious, in my day, of trying to do nothing that would bring me to confession, were I at a stage where I was able to confess. Rather than being my usual lazy self and leaving x or y to be done some other time, I try to make a point of doing at least x.
So these are the daily routines, and I think it has been important to get into some sort of routine, not in a bad sense, but just in the sense of making time every day; like most of us, my days are so full that if I let it, the time devoted to what really matters would just pass.
The other thing I have done is, in one sense down to me. Conscious that there was little chance to have much in the way of a real community, I found an on-line one to join; this, of course, was before this forum existed, but even since it has, it has sometimes been hard to get things going here. Although it is an EO forum, it has many patristic resources (which is how I found it), and its message boards contain many useful discussions, which have helped inform me about Orthodoxy. It is, however, a site monitored by ROCOR moderators, and that has meant, at times, a certain narrow heavy handedness, and some cultural assumptions which I cannot share.
Peter Farrington and I have posted there most days, and at times it has been a little torrid; but I took it as part of my life as a catechumen to try to bear what little witness I could to the BOC and its work, and have always tried, with due humility, I hope, to correct obvious misrepresentations of Oriental Orthodoxy; indeed, the need so to do has helped me learn more about aspects of Oriental Orthodoxy, such as its Christology, than I might otherwise have done. For those with a taste for such matters, <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://www.monachos.net/">http://www.monachos.net/</a><!-- m --> is a resource with some utility.
Well, enough for now, I think, but perhaps there will be a time when I can try to say something about what, if anything, these small efforts of mine have done for/to me?
- Mark Fletcher - 23-01-2007
I think that the advice of not trying to do too much all at once is very valuable and I will slow down a bit. It's just so exciting to find the superb resource that the Fellowship makes available to it's members through the creation of an on-line community, and feeling that at last I have found something which I can relate my inner life to whole-heartedly. The prayers in 'Our Daily Life' breathe themselves out of the silence of a quiet heart so naturally, and the advice contained therein is practical and simple. Just what the Doctor ordered!
Reflections of a catechumen (III) - John Charmley - 23-01-2007
It is good that you feel this way. What I have found is that it can be just when one feels that 'something' is happening that the problems can suddenly come; whether in the form of some setback in life, or the advent of some temptation to which one is prone, or just the feeling of alienation that modern life can carry in its wake. Then it can be as though whatever 'progress' you thought you'd made has been lost.
Watch out for this - if it happens to you. Remember that 'progress' cannot be measured in this area, it is a process of getting closer to God, of becoming more like the person who is made in God's image, and less like that image distorted by sin. Pray whenever you feel any of the above happening. For me that is when my prayers seem most barren; it is as though something has gone; but keep praying, keep reading the scriptures - keep to the routine you are trying to establish.
It may sound melodramatic, but I think that these temptations are from the Evil One - he hates the fact that you are turning to God and away from him, and he will do everything possible to tempt you back - and if you are prone to some temptation or other, suddenly he will throw it at you. If you give way, well, you will just have to repent and pray for help, and try again; but don't despair - Our Lord is on your side and He wants you to succeed - and that is one reason we have the Church and our priests. We are not alone in this struggle - and if you can remember that and call for help, it will come.
Like anything worth while, it can be a struggle - you are wrestling with the demons of your own sinfulness, and you will never be sure they are defeated; but it is the very process of that struggle in which you begin to realise what living a Christian life is about.
I pray for you, Mark, and for Marian, and I pray that you both find what it is you seek, and that the strength is granted to you both to continue on that journey - right to its end.
Thanks - Mark Fletcher - 23-01-2007
Thanks for that. I feel so moved as to be unable to reply fully. Your prayers are much appreciated. I think that you are right about how Satan works. The best way to see the face of evil is to look in the mirror. The outer world seems to me to be largely a reflection, an 'out-picturing', of my own subjective thoughts and desires, emerging from pure self-awareness or consciousness which I take to be the Holy Spirit 'Presence' in the 'Heart'. I've probably got this completely wrong and am up the creek without a paddle. The major error, I believe, is to think that you ever reach a stage where sin does not infect you any longer. I have a feeling that when that total Union "happens" [though it begins when one 'becomes' Twice Born] then sin is rendered completely powerless although individuality is still retained. When it happens, there is no question about it. But before then, Satan (my own evil tendencies) will take me for a ride every which way "he" can think of, and use every trick in the book to subvert my journey into God. When I was a teenager, I tried reading Evelyn Underhill's book called 'Mysticism' and just gave up because it was so dry. There is a real need for proper Spiritual Direction from people who are a little further along the path of theosis. Without that, things can get very tricky indeed and you can allow yourself to be deceived by Satan. It has happened to me in the past, and I don't much care for it!
Satan and temptation - John Charmley - 23-01-2007
if it helped, I am glad. It doesn't matter how far we go on the journey, the Evil One is always there; after all he even tried to tempt Our Lord, so we're all easy game!
That is why we need the Church. It is a spiritual hospital for the sick, and as you say, we only have to look, honestly, in the mirror to see that we are not well. But He is 'the propitiation for our sins', and if we will but love Him, then love will set us truly free. True freedom is to be found in doing what He wants, because He wants what is best for us. Sure, He could have made robots and had us do what He wanted - but that was not what He wanted from His creation - He wanted us to love Him and to come to Him willingly; it is not for nothing that we so often use the analogy of a Father and His children.
By far the best thing, Mark, would be to talk (even in written form, so to say) with one of our priests. I stand in awe of the burden they take on with their vocation, and they have so much experience and the Spirit works with them and through them.
Every day I am conscious of failing, but a little humility can help me see where I have also not failed; it is this way, bit by bit, forever slipping, but for ever leaning upon Him, that we ascend - and here the Church is our route-map, our stout walking stick, and our St. Bernard.
Sometimes I find a prayer for help to the Holy Theotokos a real aid. I have an icon of her in the room where I work, and sometimes, when things seem black, a quiet recital of the Jesus prayer in front of Her brings a calmness I did not know I could have.
But do, Mark, consider getting in touch with one of our priests - in this hospital for the sick they are the consultants.
With my prayers and best wishes,
Reflections of a Catechumen (IV) - John Charmley - 23-01-2007
Perhaps you (and anyone else who might read this) are wondering what effect all this contact with Orthodoxy has on me? What is it all for?
Well, I don't see it as a contact with something called Orthodoxy, I see it as letting the fresh understandings I am experiencing come into my life and change its nature.
This is hard to explain in words. It isn't, certainly isn't, that I am no longer prey to temptations, for example; but I am better at resisting them, not because I am stronger, but because I have some weapons now - but perhaps also because exercising with those weapons is making me spiritually more able to resist. More regular prayer, the ability to open my heart to God, and the certainty of His help, all these are great sources of strength. Still I fail, still I stumble and fall - but I feel supported as never before.
I am beginning to understand far more about what the Incarnation really means for us; what He assumed can be healed. He is fully God and fully man, and by that He sanctifies our flesh and assures us of divinisation. I no longer puzzle over Original Sin and wonder how something that is inherently depraved can be made in the image of God. I know we are thus made, and our tendency to sin mars that image, but with His help and that of the Church we can clean that image.
I don't know if I am odd or alone in not having had a conversion experience, but even if I am, I no longer feel that way. I just have to accept God's love and carry on believing, as I always have, but I know more now about what it is I believe.
It isn't about 'being good' so that I can be saved in the afterlife - it is about faith and works here and now so that I can become more the person He made. That I am not, nor ever in this life likely to be, anything close to 'good' is not important; I am a sinner, but I am not lost. The Church, in its Liturgy and its teaching and its Holy Tradition, provides the spiritual hospital in which my sickness is treated. But it is not like modern medicine, where so often it is the symptoms which are treated - here the cause of the dis-ease, sin itself, is being treated, and I am part of the healing process.
It does not mean I never feel depressed, or angry, or just plain 'down', but it does mean I have an advocate, Jesus Christ, in whose name I am called to amendment of life - and that makes all the difference sometimes.
Please consider this - Mark Fletcher - 23-01-2007
I really think that you should consider being of service to others through the written word. There is so much sense in your postings. I feel sure that a much wider 'audience' than the people on this forum would benefit from the points you make and the manner in which you handle somewhat complex issues in a way that people can relate to - not as a 'professional' religious writer - but as a catechumen. At the very least, why not print off and keep your postings? Show them to someone whose opinion you value on these matters, and ask them whether they think that your reflections could lead others to faith in Christ and would lead them to a greater measure of Life, Light and Love. I feel sure that they would agree that others would benefit in this way. Please consider this.
Reflections of a Catechumen (V) - John Charmley - 23-01-2007
Thank you for these kind words; and it is more than enough for me to know that you have been helped.
It is always so difficult when one is one these early parts of the journey. I remember that when I first came across the BOC there was a feeling of excitement, as though it could not be that there was an Orthodoxy that was actually going to be comfortable with my ethnicity.
Others told me that this was prideful; if they had been prepared to adapt to the Greekness or the Russianness, why could I not do so? The answer was because it felt wrong. It felt as though they had made a choice with which they were quite comfortable - at least one of those who said this was a long time slavophile, and he knew so much about Russia already that it was unproblematic. But reading Acts 15 I knew that the Apostles had decided this long ago; God would speak to me in my language if I could manage no other. He wanted my repentance and my loving service - not my skills (not) as a linguist.
Then came the 'Monophysite' difficulty; but as I have written above, this too seemed an irrelevance; the Copts have never been Monophysites. Their Christology is that of St. Cyril and always has been.
But, of course, there were all the doubts. Two Catholic convert friends were incredulous, saying bluntly that I was making a big mistake; the obvious thing for an Anglican was to 'Pope' - and they didn't mean Pope Shenouda. One of them more or less said that it was no more than a Vagante group, and that I would be cutting myself off from the 'real' Church. All hard words, but not to be dismissed - that would have been to have behaved like a cult member; these men were my friends, they had my welfare at heart and they were worried; it was necessary to take what they said seriously.
The second major difficulty was the break with my own Church here. It meant telling my friends there that although I loved them still, and esteemed their Church, it could no longer be my spiritual home; some of them knew, I guessed, that this had been so for some time, but others looked sadly at me, and there were those who felt hurt. In a small community it was a big thing to do, and it felt very isolated on a Sunday morning.
The Eucharistic fast this imposed was the greatest sacrifice of all - but it was so large that it felt like a real discipline; there were times when I felt, and feel, weak with its absence; but that is my decision and I have to live with it and know and remember why it is so.
There were other difficulties, some too personal to go into here, but my wife, whom I love dearly, is not only not Orthodox, she is not a Christian and has a great deal of difficulty with the Faith, because her experience has been of Churchianity. Anglicanism was just about fair enough, as it wasn't really religious (as she once put it); but her fears were raised greatly by the reaction of my Catholic friends; even now I know she had grave doubts.
All these things one takes on board, and it is no use trying to bulldoze one's way through. The very hardest thing is to let it be and to do nothing but pray. It feels at times like a kind of medieval fatalism, or even worse, a naive superstition; and that is where the prayer comes in - and the Church.
All through this Peter, and Abba Seraphim, and my local priest, Fr. Anthony, have been there as needed; never, ever, pressing or expecting anything, but just there.
There are moments of doubt, of loneliness, and of deep self-searching; recognising what has to change in the way one is and what one thinks with is hard; doing it is even harder, especially when, as always happens, one fails to do it right. But in failing to achieve the highest standards, I have some hope that I get higher than I did before.
The temptation to pride is not, thank goodness, one that afflicts me. There is too much that I have done that I ought not to have done, and too many times when I have not done those things which I ought to have done - and the burden of sin is sometimes intolerable. But what Orthodoxy is helping me do is to realise that He can tolerate it, He can accept me as I am, and if I will but repent, amend my life, and follow in His ways, then He will help share my burden, and it will no longer be mine alone. What is it I have done to deserve this love? That He should have died for me is so beyond anything I could merit that I must be worthy of His love - and I must try to show that I am His, and worth that sacrifice.
I hope that I have been neither rose-tinted, nor gloomy, and that I have stressed adequately all the little, and big, obstacles in the way. Whenever my period as a catechumen ends, I will always be one in reality, for the ocean on which I will then embark is one that has endless depth and vast expanses; but I will have, more fully, the Uncreated Light to guide me, and I will have the stout timbers of the Church for my vessel, and in my priests and bishops, I will have helmsmen who are long into the journey and can guide me. And, of course, I will, now fully, have the body and the blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ to sustain me, and the sacraments of His Church for my comfort.
Believing that is what awaits me at the port of embarkation, who can complain if the road there is rocky and at times steep and darkly lit? What was I expecting - the Yellow Brick Road?
Well, I have written more than I intended, but am encouraged by what you say - and if there are things in these posts that speak to you and to others, then I thank God that I can be of some small service in His work.
Pray for me, and for us all in our weakness.
Reflections of a Catechumen (VI) - John Charmley - 24-01-2007
Now it is done, except for whatever follows when I am received into the arms of the Church.
The biggest single difficulty has to be the dispersed nature of our community. In the early Church the practice was for the catechumen to learn not just through instruction (vital, and important as that is), but also through being part of the Church community; she or he would, as it were, pick up things as they went along, and by the time the catechumen was ready to be received, she or he would be part of the community. There is no doubt that it is more difficult to do that here.
Without the internet (finally, a Holy use for it!) I would have found it much more difficult: it would have been more difficult to get hold of the books I needed - they're not there in your local SPCK (although some are getting there since the Orthodox took it over); it would have been more difficult to have found the other information needed about Orthodoxy in its various manifestations; and there would have been far less in the way of community contact.
But these limitations mean that you have to be willing to be proactive; you have to let people know what your questions are, and you have to seek out answers - and questions. This is, I suspect, a good thing in its way. There are times when you feel very isolated and wonder why you are doing this, and without at least a virtual community, it would be difficult to tackle those moments.
Knowing my own weaknesses, I thought it a good idea to join a non Oriental site, in my own case Monachos. I knew I ran the risk of tunnel-vision, of seeing in the BOC what I wanted to see. The eirenic approach of Abba Seraphim and of Peter were excellent guards against that, and one of the first things that struck me was that they were not trying to 'convert' me; they were just there, unselfishly, to help me as a fellow-Christian looking for a way forward.
On Monachos, which is a good site for someone with my interests, I learnt much about Orthodoxy, and was presented with some very hard sayings about its Oriental version (as they saw it). That was good for me. I had something to compare the BOC with - and the comparison was all in its favour. I have met some very good people there, and I have learned very much that I would not have known, but I have learned that it would have been impossible for me to have come to Orthodoxy through ROCOR; it is too close to an Orthodox Taleban. The Greek and the Russian Orthodox (MP) I have met are good men and women, but they often confuse ethnic practice and Orthodox praxis. The long discussions with them on Monachos enabled me to compare their approach with some OO posters, including our own Peter Farrington; and I knew whose side I would rather be on - on one side there were harsh words and judgements; on the other a loving forgiveness and a lack of judgementalism - combined with a firm adherence to Orthodoxy.
In the end it became simple. But I do not know that it would have been had I not had experience of other types of Orthodoxy.
Yes, the BOC is a small and scattered community, but like our mother Church, the Copts, we seek to bring in others and to share with them what we have; what they decide to do with that we leave to the Lord. If, like myself, they find a fulness of the Christian life, then they may stay; if not, then we all pray for them and wish them well in finding what it is the Lord wants them to do.
In John 14:6, Our Lord tells us:
Quote:6 Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.- but we also need a Mother, and that is the Church. For me that is the BOC. Whatever labels attach to it seem, if I make make so bold, irrelevant. 'Oriental' Orthodox, non-Chalcedonian, Coptic, none of these matter to me, for what I perceive is
Quote:the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints., even as it says here in Jude 1:3.
Internet Community - Mark Fletcher - 25-01-2007
In an odd kind of way, meeting others in cyberspace through this forum (and undoubtedly others) could be compared with a meeting of minds in the House of the Holy Spirit. I think it's a wonderful resource, and one that is essential for the scattered community of people involved in some way with the British Orthodox Church. Without it, things would be much more difficult and daunting for someone like me. I'm very grateful that such a thing has been provided.
Fellowship - John Charmley - 25-01-2007
'Amen' to that as they say. I am very grateful, not least to Peter, who puts so much effort into this.
It is, I suspect, a difficult forum for those of us not as used to the internet, but once one gets into it, it does provide something that we need in the BOC.
Reflections of a catechumen VIII - John Charmley - 10-02-2007
Dear Mark, Dear Peter,
At the moment contemplation of tomorrow overwhelms me; but the calm will, I hope, come.
I read the Vespers for tomorrow and the words stand out from Matthew 11:22 'So Jesus answered and said to them, Have faith in God', and know that that is all that is required.
Here is where only faith keeps me going. That I am unworthy, I know, but since the Church is a spiritual hospital, the sick are to be found there - and so it is only right that I should come there, at last.
It is, I know, only another step on the long road, but it seems more like a coming home. As He wills it.
Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Reflections of a catechumen IX - final reflections - John Charmley - 11-02-2007
The last of this series, because today I was received into the Church.
The experience is, at the most important level, that of the spirit, beyond words. As my wife, Rachael, and I, set out on the 60 mile journey to Church, the rains fell steadily. She had been feeling unwell, but was (characteristically) determined to come and to support me; half way through the journey she felt ill and wondered if she should turn back; it was real enough, but symbolic of the whole journey I had been on. We both went on. The bleak west Norfolk countryside had never seemed so grey and empty.
I felt empty, but not grey; and that wasn't meant as a pun on the fast I began at 10 p.m.; that, to her surprise (and mine) was not a problem. I had thought I would be a ferment of emotions; I wasn't.
As we arrived at Babingley, I saw Abba Seraphim, and the calm came. Inside St. Mary and St. Felix it felt like coming home. To see Peter Farrington and his son Callum there was a great joy; that they should have come so far was yet another example of the symbolic being the reflection of the reality; Peter had been with me on every step of the journey, and it was so right that he was there at the end of this stage. From Fr. Tony and from the community, the welcome was so warm that if there had been snow, it would have melted.
Vespers went by in a flash. Then came the time for the Baptism and Chrismation. I had never asked what would happen; it was not important that I knew, just that I did what was needful; another example of the symbol/reality theme. I shall say nothing about the ceremony; but it was everything I could have imagined - and much more.
To be able to receive the Eucharist after my long fast was another experience I shall not forget.
So, there I was, home. Afterward someone said something about an observer elsewhere commenting on the length of the service as being 'too long' - my wife's response hit home: 'too long for what?' she asked.
Abba Seraphim's gift of an icon of St. George was perfect - the dragon had indeed been slain. Fr. Tony presented me with an icon of Christ Pantocrator on behalf of the St. Felix community at a lunch afterwards.
We drove back through perfect sunshine.
My wife's comment was that all her life she had come to distrust Christians, who so rarely radiated the sort of energy their faith suggested they should, but here, she said, it was different; she had never met Christians like these. The bishops she had met in the past had seemed men who were high on their own importance; Abba Seraphim, by contrast, won her heart as a holy man she could respect. Little touches meant a lot. As the congregation assembled around the font, Fr. Tony, instinctively seeing her need to be able to see me, quietly got her into just the right position; she was not, she said, used to such care and consideration - but, she said, she was not surprised at it in a man like Fr. Tony.
My wife is not a Christian, and she had her doubts about the journey I was on. The delightful things about the journey home through the sun-kissed greenery of beautiful west Norfolk was that her doubts were gone. That was a great Christian witness by the British Orthodox Church - and I thank everyone concerned.
As we arrived home she said: 'You seem so calm, so happy'; I replied: 'That is because I am.'
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, One God, world without end,