Visit to Norway 19 - 31 July 2009

Archbishop Seraphim : Report
Visit to Norway
19-31 July, 2009

This year, in 2009, I had the blessing to visit my ageing relatives in Norway, along with the elder of my sisters and her husband. The last visit to these relatives had been about 13 years earlier. Since then, some first-cousins had already reposed, and other cousins are nearly 90 years of age. These persons are great-grandparents, and some are nearing the possibility of seeing yet another generation. It was a good thing to visit at this time, and I am glad that my sister had insisted, since I have no idea when, or if, I may have the blessing to visit again. Of course, I said I would return “as soon as possible”, but I had said this same thing thirteen years earlier, on my last visit. Life is unpredictable, financial resources are unpredictable, and we cannot know with certainty when this “as soon as possible” might actually be.

Much of my time was spent in talking with these very relatives, and with their children and grand-children, and this in an odd mixture of English, French, and three sorts of Norwegian. From this visit, there are some details which may be helpful to put in writing in order to share with others. These include the nature of the Orthodox Church in Norway, and the increase of the devotion to Saint Sunniva.

The last times I had visited Norway, the Orthodox Church had subsisted mostly in Oslo, with some very little activity in other parts of the country. At that time, any activity beyond Oslo stemmed from Saint Nicholas’ Church in that city (which began in the 1920s with Russian émigrés, who in time came under the “Paris Jurisdiction”, the Russian Diocese of Western Europe of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, currently under the archbishop in Paris, Gabriel (de Vylder)). There has been (for at least 30 years) a monastery about 1 ½ hour’s drive north of the city. This is the residence of the now Archimandrite Johannes (Johansen) and 2 other monks. Archimandrite Johannes has been the rector of Saint Nicholas’ Church in Oslo for all these years, and the monastery developed at the same time, while he commuted to serve the parish in the city. Somewhat more recently, there arrived in Norway a number of Greek-speakers. Eventually, they established a Greek parish in Oslo, which is under the omophor of the Metropolitan of Stockholm, Pavlos (Paul). Then there arrived a new Russian-speaking immigration, and also Serbs and Romanians, and more recently many Ethiopians, Eritreans and Copts. Regardless, all these more recently-arrived Orthodox communities had their beginning in, and from the Church of Saint Nicholas in Oslo.

From the time of the beginning of the service of Archimandrite Johannes (a graduate of the Institut Saint-Serge de Paris), the focus of this parish (and with it the monastery in Hurdal) has been to develop the use of the Norwegian language in worship and in publications, and to attempt to do some missionary work. This is particularly difficult in the Norwegian environment, which has been so much formed by the Lutheran State-Church. Nevertheless, there are now established communities in places such as Bergen, Stavanger ( and other places, as is reported on the web-site of Saint Nicholas (see, and, and also In the city of Oslo, there is now a parish established directly under Moscow, with its own set of missionary parishes throughout Norway (see, and In Oslo, there may also be found a Serbian parish, a Romanian parish, a Bulgarian parish, and a Greek parish (, in addition to the original Church of Saint Nicholas (see also In addition, there is an Oriental Orthodox community made up primarily of Ethiopians and Eritreans which has been recently established. All these churches are generally invisible to most Norwegians, especially in comparison with the increasingly numerous (and increasingly vocal) Muslim immigrants who have also arrived in the country. There are now many Norwegian converts to Islam, particularly amongst young women who marry Muslim men. There is a substantial immigration to Norway from Africa.

Our Saint Nicholas Church began in a house ; and then, as it grew, it continued in a basement of a Lutheran Church in western Oslo (which is where I first visited it in 1974). That basement church remains a part of this parish’s life. However since my last visit, the parish has also bought and taken over what used to be a grocery-store in eastern Oslo, in an area where more new immigrants live. When I arrived at this new Temple, I was surprised to see that it is just across the street from the apartment in which my recently-deceased cousins used to live. The shop has been converted very thoughtfully and well into a small, but visible, above-ground Temple. When we were visiting there this time, there was an absence of many parishioners, because July is the main vacation month in Norway. Nevertheless, there were still many in church, and the singing and serving were pleasant. Archbishop Gabriel of Paris had given the blessing that I serve there, which I did. It was the first time that I served completely in the Norwegian language. In addition to all this, I considered it a particular blessing to have been told that the principal icon of Christ on the iconostas has been giving myrrh regularly and continually for the past 10 years. Indeed, it was noticeable when I was there.

It is important to be aware that the decline of the Norwegian Lutheran Church (which has been well known-about in the past) has been accelerating. There are fewer and fewer clergy ; and it seems that very few people now attend church services, except at Christmas (Pascha is now mostly for skiing). This State-Church seems to have been reduced to being (for the most part) a socially-active entity that is disconnected from the people. One of the cousins (of contemporary age to me) lamented the fact that, although when she travelled abroad, she could, and did go into many Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and did light candles with praying, she could not do so anywhere in Norway. Her opinion was supported by another, somewhat younger cousin. Indeed, the churches in Norway are (as in North America) locked outside of service-times (except for the historic ones, for which there is a charge to enter, and a guide, but no candle-lighting). Norwegians are well-known for their social responsibility and for their concerns about promoting peace. All this is rooted in their Christian ancestry, but this major source is deliberately ignored in the context of humanism. I was rather saddened to be told that in my family’s village, a circuit priest comes every 3 weeks, and that only about 12 persons now attend services (except at Christmas). It seems that even some urban churches suffer the same shortage of clergy and of congregations. Some years ago now, the Swedish Lutheran Church disconnected itself from the government in Sweden, and it now lives from its own resources, rather than from the government subsidy through taxation. I have, myself, heard nothing about such a movement in Norway. However, the apparent paralysis of this church in Norway could, in my opinion, be in some way overcome (and some sort of renewal embraced) by doing something similar. Of course, it is easy to make such critical comments from the outside.

At the same time, in Vestland (the western fjord-district), in Nordfjord, I was told that there are now many Russian-speaking women immigrants who have married Norwegian men. Such a phenomenon could help to turn the tide. Russian women in general are known for bringing their husbands to the church. This particular fjord is certainly not at all a centre of vitality, but it is a rather remote, and somewhat struggling community. This remoteness has generally been the case (except in Viking and Hanseatic times) because it is still approached most easily by water. Roads are now more numerous, but the driving remains a challenge. By contrast to the Lutheran Church, the Roman Catholic Church (which has been small for a long time) is very noticeably growing. It seems that many Lutherans will recognise and accept their Roman Catholic historical background (which is generally popularised in writings and education), in comparison with their more unknown historical connexion with Rus’ (although this is very clearly addressed in the sagas). Indeed, it was the Rus’ connexion that gave Christianity permanent roots in Norway, not the British one (as is so often wrongly repeated). One of the signs of this (apart from Constantinopolitan iconographic styles in early murals and in some architecture) is the fact that clerical celibacy as required by Rome was never able to be established in Norway before the Reformation. Of course, afterwards, there was no such requirement.

Another detail not discussed directly by my relatives is the activity of the Pentecostals, who are visibly present in their various halls. As I understand it, they had their beginnings in Norway over a century ago. It is no wonder to me that other alternatives are being tried, or that people have withdrawn into themselves, since so many complain about the Calvinistic disposition of many Lutherans in Norway. Amongst those who are active as Lutherans, the tendency is to be pessimistic and negative about human behaviours, and to be living in an atmosphere of guilt and of condemnation. There is very clearly a disposition, as in North America, of a “consumer-style” approach to the Church. The lack of any sense of “absolute Truth”, and the current, prevalent egocentric relativism contributes greatly. Further, it has been interesting to see how (as in other places), when there is an abandoning of the traditional Christian way of life, and an abandoning of the importance of the worship of the Lord, there immediately arrives superstition to take its place. Ironically, fear is a noticeable element in Calvinistic attitudes, and people substitute this with superstition and pagan ideas which carry even more fear. There is in Norway, also, some sort of pagan revival, with nostalgia for the so-called “good old days”. Regardless of all these comments, and although all is very slow-moving (not so different from Canada), there are many Norwegians who have an appreciation for Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy presents hope.

Saint Sunniva, the Virgin-Martyr of Selja Island with her companions (who died in about 960), has now become quite popular in Norway. During my last visit, she had begun to be better known, although the Nordfjordites had always been aware of her. The spring/well at the monastery ruins, for instance, has been known for a long time to be beneficial, and healing. The water is very fresh, cool and also aromatic. However, because of Lutheran resistance to saints, there grew up instead a superstitious attitude towards this spring (in part, I suppose, to protect it). Now, people are told that if one kneels to drink, and takes the water to the mouth in the right hand, and also washes the face with the right hand, then one will become younger ! We made a pilgrimage to this island during this visit to Nordfjord, thanks to one of our older cousins. She was really glad to be able to go. Even from halfway down the fjord (as is our family’s village of Stårheim), it takes at least an hour to drive to the town of Selje, over the new and improved roads, and thence by a small boat for 15 minutes to the island. The remains of the Benedictine monastery that grew up in the 11th century near Saint Sunniva’s cave are still quite visible. In part, they are being restored. The steps up to the cave are many, and very difficult to manoeuvre. There is now an icon of Christ at the place where Saint Sunniva’s uncorrupt body was found, and where it rested for more than a century. There are now annual pilgrimages for the Feast-day on 8 July (both Roman Catholic and Orthodox), and there are cultural festivals associated with Saint Sunniva. Her name and image are now associated with the county of Selje, and her name has also become rather commercialised, being found as a brand-name on soaps and fruit-juices.

We made a pilgrimage with one cousin to the Skete of Saint Trifon (of Pechenga), some 90 km north from Oslo, which is also the residence of Archimandrite Johannes (Johansen). He is also Dean of Scandinavia for the Archdiocese of Western Europe, under Archbishop Gabriel. This skete is situated in a remote area of Hurdal, amongst hills and forests not unlike either Trans-Carpathia or Bukovinian Romania. It was previously situated in an even more remote area. However, about 10 years previously, the skete moved to the present site, easily accessible from a not-busy highway. The main building is a former school, which accommodates the small community very well. Nearby is a small log-built chapel to Saint Seraphim of Sarov, built in a rural Norwegian style. Almost completed is a stone-construction Temple near the entrance, and close to the main building. Everything is built with ecology in mind (and recycling as well). The style of this Temple is a near-copy of a Temple in Kosovo, and it is purposely built to be visibly “in solidarity” with the Serbian Church there. The monastery is the supporter and source of the main missionary and publishing work in Norway. From here, also, is served annually the small chapel in Neiden, North Norway, which was built by Saint Trifon of Pechenga (Petsamo) about 500 years ago. The conversation with Archimandrite Johannes (whom I have known since 1980) was very frank in terms of the similar sense of missionary purpose that we share as North Americans, and as Norwegians.

Saint Sunniva and her Companions, of Selja, Norway

Saint Sunniva is a Virgin-Martyr († ca. 960) in Norway. She was an Irish princess, a Christian, who was to inherit her father’s kingdom. However, at that time, there arrived the conquering Vikings, whose chieftain was insisting on marrying Sunniva. She had, by this time, determined not to marry, and to devote her life to Christ. Therefore, she refused his offer both for this reason, and also because he was a pagan. She, her siblings, and others with them entrusted themselves to the Lord, and set themselves adrift on the Irish Sea, without either sails or oars (they were not the first of that area to have done such a thing). In due time, the boats landed on two islands on the west coast of Norway. Saint Sunniva and her companions arrived at Selja, at the western end of Nordfjord, and one of her sisters, and her companions landed on the island of Kinn, farther south, near Florø. They all settled as well as they could. There were some arable areas on the islands, but there were also resident sheep belonging to a local jarl (earl). When it was discovered by the earl’s shepherds that some sheep were missing, it was the new-comers who were blamed. People on the mainland had a mistrust of the newly arrived, and they accused them of stealing sheep. The pagan population came against them with sword and fire, but then a storm blew in. Then the local pagan leader, the Earl Håkon sent people to kill them. Saint Sunniva and her companions, knowing that the earl’s people were on their way to confront them, retreated to a cave on higher ground, and they prayed that the Lord would protect them from being killed by the earl. Rocks came rolling down from the higher slopes, and covered the mouth of the cave. The earl then could not find anyone, so he left. After that, many strange things seemed to be appearing on the island.

According to some sources, we know the name of Sunniva’s siblings — her brother Saint Alban, and her sisters, Saints Borni and Marita, all of whom are commemorated amongst the saints. These companion Irish refugees, who went ashore on other boats which landed on the island of Kinn (where they remained), probably lived their lives just as did Saint Sunniva and her companions on Selja. They lived an isolated ascetical life on the spot, much as did Celtic hermits on various other islands in the Atlantic, including on Iceland and Greenland. They lived thus until they died a natural death. They are nevertheless treated as martyrs.

In 996, according to the saga, Saint Olaf Trygvasson (by now the King of Norway) was told that there was a bright light coming from the island. This was told by 2 farmers from Firda County, his subjects Tord Eigileivsson and Tord Jorunsson, who had sailed past the island on their way to Trondheim, and had seen it. The light over the island was so great that they anchored at the island. They then found a white, fragrant skull, and some other sweet-smelling bones near a rock-fall. They continued the trip to Trondheim, where they met with King Olaf Trygvasson and Bishop Sigurd. The king and bishop believed that the skull had to be a relic, so they sailed south to Selja. In the cave that they excavated, they found Saint Sunniva, whose body was whole (that is, uncorrupt), and even looked as if she were sleeping. Together with her, they found many skeletons that exuded the same scent as the skull. The bones were gathered together and placed in a box, and then placed in a coffin that was constructed for the body of the Holy Sunniva. Saint Olaf is reported to have stopped to pray in the cave-chapel on his way to and from England, when he was attempting to bring Christianity to Norway the first time. This mission did not succeed. It was only after his retreat to Kyiv, and his marriage to the daughter of his cousin Yaroslav the Wise, Anna, that the mission succeeded in Norway.

Soon, Benedictines from England settled on Selja, and built a monastery which they consecrated to Saint Alban (who, according to one version of the saga, was Sunniva’s brother). Judging by the archaeological excavations around the monastery, there was a school for boys there. There is evidence that already in the period before the Reformation, the monastery was affected by both fire and epidemics. Soon also, there were built five Temples on this island. Not long after this, Selja was established as an Episcopal See, along with Trondheim, for purposes of rooting the mission in Norway. There is also, close to the monastery walls, a well (or rather, a spring), whose waters are cool, fragrant and healing. In 1170, the Episcopal See was moved to Bergen. Saint Sunniva’s body was transferred to the Church of Christ the Saviour in Bergen, and placed in the Sanctuary. This was on 31 August, 1170, which is the second feast-day of Saint Sunniva, the day of the translation of her relics.

During the fires in Bergen in 1170-1171 and in 1198, the remains of Saint Sunniva were taken from the Church of Christ, and set down by Sandbru. This reportedly halted the advance of the fire, and it was hailed as a miracle.

In about 1170, the story of Saint Sunniva the Martyr was written down in a Latin hagiographic work entitled Acta sanctorum in Selio.

In this particular area of west Norway, there is a long-standing interchange between the Norse and Gælic cultures, and there are mutually connected linguistic influences which are quite detectable. Besides fishing, both groups of peoples have been active in business and trading over the North Sea waters. There are also very many inter-marriages between Norway and Scotland in particular. MacDonald is not an unfamiliar surname in western Norway.