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The Great Ball Lightning Event

Introductory Remarks

Twice a year something very special takes place at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College in Sydney. For two weeks in January and again in July the College holds intensive vacation schools open to any adult – whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (apologies to St Paul) - with a thirst for the living waters of Wisdom. Yes, the crystal clear waters flow freely, but WHERE ARE YOU ALL? Just down the road the Anglican Moore Theological College is bursting at the seams, while the sound of our feet echoes off the walls of our elegant but sparsely populated hall.

The reapers await, but where is the harvest? Withered on the stony ground, wilted at the stem like the crops afflicted by the great drying out of much of Australia? But are numbers everything (in January, the first week of our intensives we had twelve customers, the second eight)? At chapel one morning of the second week we read those beautiful words of Christ: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32 RSV).” And there around me was Christ’s little flock.

Would this little flock flutter off on Friday and inspire others with the zeal of the Lord? Yes, indeed it would! The MA in Theological Studies St Andrew’s is a full member institution of the Sydney College of Divinity (SCD), a federation of university level theological colleges of several denominations. All of the units that we teach by means of five-day vacation schools can be counted towards a Master of Arts degree program in theological studies designed for graduates with qualifications in fields other than theology. Students do not have to complete all Twelve course units required for a Master’s degree but can hop off the tram with a SCD Graduate Certificate (four units) or Diploma (eight units).

But our doors are not closed to non-graduates, any one can apply to attend the vacation schools as an auditor (literally, “hearer”). Auditors are expected to participate fully in schools but are not required to complete essays or other assessment tasks, and the fees are lower than for those enrolled with the SCD. Attend four schools and we will award you a College Certificate of Participation to hang on your wall - though, unlike accredited SCD qualifications, you will not be able to use it as a meal ticket. What subjects do we teach by means of intensives? Units, all of which are taught exclusively in English, range across the fields of theology (including patristics), biblical studies, liturgical studies and Church history. The College has designated two subjects as foundation units, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (hermeneutics is theory of interpretation in contrast to the practice of interpretation, which is exegesis) and Introducing Theology.

Special Weeks

Currently, we teach the two foundation subjects by means of vacation schools in alternate years (2008, 2010 etc). Those Special Weeks so, what is special about St Andrew’s intensive weeks?
As I am actively engaged in coordinating and teaching vacation schools, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the quality of the lectures. Suffice it to say, I have personally heard many truly excellent lectures by both faculty and visiting lecturers. But about other things I can enthuse to my heart’s content.

First, it is our wonderful students, the crème de la crème of the laity (with the occasional priest or deacon), who make our intensives so special. These are women and men, often with demanding jobs and / or heavy family responsibilities, who give up several weeks a year to attend schools, and most of whom then go back home to work away at assignments. With young people leaving the life of the Church in droves, never was there such a need for a core of theologically educated lay Orthodox.

The second thing that is so special about St Andrew’s intensive weeks is that they are far more than just academic lecture series. For the weeks that they are with us, students are immersed in the same authentically Orthodox ethos of prayer, worship, fellowship, study, reflection and discussion as are our pastoral studies and Bachelor of Theology students who are with us most of the year. So normally, every day starts with a short service in English in the College’s beautiful little chapel of St John the Divine / Evangelist (or perhaps on one or even two days a Liturgy in the Cathedral) and end’s with evening prayers.

Coffee / tea breaks and lunch (all included) give opportunity for students not only to get to know one another but also to chat informally with lecturers. Similarly, the College’s well-stocked library is not only a place to browse amongst the shelves, round up material for assignments or to do a little private study but is another place to interact with lecturers and fellow students, not to mention our inimitable and super-helpful librarian, Chris Harvey.

But above all what impresses me most about our special weeks is the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit. This is a constant, but it was the very first school that I coordinated, in January 2004, the year that we commenced intensives, that is most deeply etched on my memory. Wherever the Holy Spirit is present in power strange things tend to happen. They happened that week. Let me tell you of the strangest happening of all, an event so strange that I got the eyewitnesses to record their experience at the time.

Ball Lightning Visits the Library

The event occurred on Thursday, January 22 shortly before 7.30 pm, though no one recorded the exact time. I left shortly after evening chapel but some of the students stayed on to work in the library. Chris Harvey and three students, one a presbytera - let us call them Faith, Hope and Presbytera Charity - were still in the library when the visitation occurred. The library is situated at the first floor level up external stairs from a courtyard. As one passes through the door at the top of the steps, one enters an open area with the Librarian’s desk a short distance across to one’s left. Ahead is a small round table and chairs behind which is the wall of the photocopying room.

Today this wall is covered by a bookcase, but in 2004 it was blank save for an icon of St Andrew with a shiny metal cover. That evening there was a violent storm directly over St Andrew’s, with thunder, lightning and rain. When the storm appeared to have died down, Chris turned off the air conditioning, opened the library door to let the cooling breeze in, and returned to his desk.

Faith could not see the entrance area at all as she was at the rear of the library. For Chris, at his desk, the library door was ahead and to his right. From this vantage point, he had a perfect view of any one (or any thing!) passing through the door into the library (that is the way he likes it).

Hope had just left the photocopying room and taken a couple of steps in the direction of the door. From her position she would have seen anything coming through the door almost head on. Presbytera Charity was seated at the round table with her back to the door, facing the icon of St Andrew. The scene was set. There was a deafening crack and a ball of incandescent blue light shot through the open door 5-6 feet above the floor. It travelled about 10 feet into the entrance area to just behind the head of the Presbytera and then abruptly vanished. Chris, viewing the phenomenon from the side, experienced it as a line of light that resolved itself as a sphere just Before disappearing.

Hope, seeing it head on, saw it as a “brilliant blue ball of light” framed by the doorway. Faith was unable to see the phenomenon but she heard a very loud noise which sounded like an explosion. Presbytera Charity had her back to the door but incredibly saw the ball of light reflected in the metal cover of the icon. It was, she said, “as if the icon had caught the thunder”.

Immediately following the event it was discovered that both of the library’s computers were out of action (next day it was found that most phones and computers in the Archdiocesan offices were dead). A smell of burning was coming from outside the door, where the shattered witnesses believed lightning had struck. “We had a look outside for scorch marks,” Hope wrote, “but couldn’t find anything and Presbytera Charity furiously continued her prayer knots.” And then it started to rain again.

What is ball Lightning?

There seems no doubt that a sphere of ball lightning entered the library, immediately following a lightning strike outside. Ball lightning is a rare and bizarre meteorological phenomenon that seems to defy the laws of physics. Indeed, most scientists were sceptical that such a phenomenon could occur. That is, until a group of scientists flying to Washington one stormy night in 1963 witnessed it for themselves. Emerging through the wall of the pilot’s cabin, a blue sphere of light, about 20 cm in diameter, drifted down the aisle of the passenger cabin and disappeared through the rear of the plane. Ball lightning normally forms following a lightning strike and is usually experienced as a solid-looking incandescent sphere of light of c. 15 cm in diameter, which is about the diameter estimated by Chris. It can, however, be much larger or smaller. It might be of any colour but blue is common.

It can pass through solid structures but likes exploring open and enclosed spaces. It has been known to enter by one door of a house, drift around from room to room, and leave by another door! It seems that it can last anything up to five minutes and often disappears with a loud bang. This might well have happened with St Andrew’s ball as Faith reported an explosive noise which she was certain came from within the library itself. Several scientific theories have been proposed but none appears to account for all of the phenomena. Inevitably, some lunatics have Suggested lighning balls are aliens trying to collect human DNA.

Ball lightning does not have the reputation for being particularly dangerous but it does have at least one fatality to its credit; as it happens, the first recorded instance of the phenomenon.

In 1754, a Dr Richmann of St Petersburg decided to repeat Benjamin Franklin’s famous experiment on lightning. As he did so, a large sphere of ball lightning suddenly manifested itself, struck him on the head and killed him. Was Presbytera Charity in serious danger of meeting the same fate? Did our patron, St Andrew, intervene and draw the lightning into his icon? Did a miracle occur that stormy evening? If by “miracle” one means an event which violates the laws of nature, then great scepticism is called for.

Orthodoxy has been averse to ascribing phenomena to the supernatural, preferring to restrict the denotation of “supernatural” to the supercelestial, supersensible eternal domain. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that the St Andrew’s event was beyond the limits of scientific explanation.

An extraordinary occurrence, a wonder? Certainly. A sign? Possibly. (But isn’t a sign an event to which we ascribe meaning?) Strange coincidence? Of course. Coincidences belong to the realm of natural (scientifically explicable, at least in principle) phenomena. But many events which people are given to calling “miracles” are in fact wondrous coincidences. As William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, noted: “When I pray, coincidences happen – when I don’t, they don’t!” Indeed, the Holy Spirit acts mysteriously through the silence of prayer. Wonders I cannot promise you, should you join us at St Andrew’s in July or January, a spiritually and intellectually rejuvenating experience I can.

Guy Freeland teaches hermeneutics and liturgical
studies at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College.

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