Changed by His grace

It was Easter morning during my first year at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and I stood at the altar of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey, wearing subdeacon vestments, listening to our bishop read the gospel of St. Mark. In the traditional Syriac Orthodox melody, he chanted:

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16.5-6).

I was overwhelmed by these words. He is risen, he is not here! Silently, I began to weep. The sense of awe that accompanied this moment was soon replaced with embarrassment, as I saw our bishop looking right at me as tears dripped off my chin. I shuffled off to find a tissue.

Why did teapascha1rs come to me at such a moment? Certainly, the feast of our Lord’s resurrection holds great power. But thinking back on all that had occurred over my first year at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I realized that what I experienced on that day was the result of accumulation. The Seminary prescribes for its students a life focused on seeking the Lord, and such a life is a struggle against the outside world. This Christ-centered focus is supported by chapel services, classes, community service, fasts, confession, and for a married student such as myself, family life. Yet on any given day, I would often wonder if such a routine was bearing any fruit. On this Easter day, I received an answer. Each day lived trying to fix our gaze on our Lord has a great benefit. It is a benefit that is usually unseen from day to day, but which accumulates slowly over time.

St. John Climacus addresses the unseen character of the spiritual life. He writes:

After a long spell of prayer, do not say that nothing has been gained, for you have already achieved something. For after all, what higher good is there than to cling to the Lord, to persevere in unceasing union with him? (Ladder of Divine Ascent, 28.32)

Life at seminary, and the life of every Orthodox Christian, is an effort to cling to the Lord each day. My time at St. Vladimir’s, particularly on that Easter morning, has taught me that, though we may not perceive any immediate changes as we try to live according to Church teaching, each day of effort matters. The Lord sees our labor and our constant yearning for Him, and slowly changes us by His grace.

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The tears granted to me on Easter were a gift, showing me that, to some small and humble measure, the truth of the resurrection had established some root in my heart. Even so, the reality is that I am still a spiritual beginner, returning often to ego and self-will instead of casting myself completely upon the Lord. Yet, as my time here at seminary draws to an end, I will leave as a spiritual beginner, yet one who knows what I must do with the remainder of the earthly life that God gives me. I must work, seeking Him every day, and I pray that by His grace the following words will continue to descend into my heart, filling it through and through:

He is risen, he is not here!


Thomas Totonchy is a third-year Master of Divinity student from the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. He is from Portland, Oregon, where his father helped to establish the St. Ignatius of Antioch parish. There he served as a subdeacon and was involved in youth ministry before coming to New York for seminary with his wife Jennifer, who works at the Weill Cornell Medical College. In the summer of 2015, they welcomed their daughter Josephine into the world. After seminary, Thomas hopes to continue to serve the Church as a youth minister, and if it be God’s will, as a priest.

(Photos: Leanne Parrott Photography)

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A sacrament of divine presence

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Martyr Mamas (Dokheiariou Monastery, Mt. Athos, Greece)

It is not always easy—to say the least—to relate the world of the saints to our own everyday life, where harmony is rarely the dominant characteristic of our environment or our relations with other creatures. A hermit in the desert might co-exist with local fauna; but the population of a city is bound to displace many, many other creatures. And then there are the creatures whose interests seem to be in direct conflict with our own: does “loving everything with the same love” really extend to the mosquito or the deer tick?

To this last question, the holy ascetic might well answer “Yes.” But what does that mean in practice? It defines such a person’s own relationship with unattractive and dangerous creatures; but there is always a difference between what one may accept for oneself and what one expects others to bear. The saints show us clearly that genuine God spills over into loving compassion for all his creatures, just as it is inseparable from love for our brother and sister. In the world of the fall, an all-embracing love does not exclude the possibility that animals may need to be deliberately killed if they threaten human life, like Abba Helle’s crocodile. Yet the saints teach us that the life of even an insect should not be taken thoughtlessly, and that our power over other creatures gives us a responsibility for their welfare. The stories of how holy people have lived inspire us to look hard at the possibilities for coexistence before taking more drastic action; and if we want to avoid outright conflict with other creatures today, ecological understanding is one of our most valuable tools. To return, for instance, to the aforementioned deer tick: we discover too late how the explosion in tick populations is linked with the extinction of the passenger pigeon, whose flocks would strip the oaks of acorns. With the birds gone, a wealth of acorns fed a growing population of mice, hosts for the ticks. There was a world in which we could coexist more easily with the tick, and we destroyed that world—not in the days of Adam, but in the twentieth century.

When we think about the displacement of other creatures and habitat destruction as a result of human activities, or the uses to which we put domestic and experimental animals, the approach will be similar. If we can discern a principle, it would be that human needs prevail—but not human whims or human greed. If I am harming other creatures by serving interests of my own, I must consider honestly whether my “need” is real or frivolous and whether it can be fulfilled in some other way.

The way we interact with other creatures cannot, however, be reduced simply to a set of ethical principles. Fundamental to our attitude, and therefore our behavior, is the way we perceive the world around us. Much modern thinking is dominated by ways of perceiving that are based on “nature red in tooth and claw”: the world is an arena of cutthroat competition, a battleground of selfish genes. It is important to recognize that these are not objective descriptions, but frameworks for an interpretation of the facts—lenses through which we perceive reality. And the Church offers us a different lens, that of the icon. An icon of the transfigured human being, and in some cases the environment around him or her, does speak to us of the actual world around us and how to treat the land in which we live. The ultimate contrast is not between sharing our environment or preserving it in a pristine state. The choice before us is whether or not we will embrace its potential, as the saints have done, so that natural and man made features alike become a sacrament of divine presence.

livingThis is an excerpt from Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology by Elizabeth Theokritoff, published by SVS Press. Emphases added.

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A feast of water

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on January 6, 2016.

Readings for the day may be accessed here.

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Archpriest Chad Hatfield is the first Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Father Chad came to SVOTS from St. Herman Seminary in Alaska, where he was serving as the Dean. He presently serves as a member of the Metropolitan Council of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). His experience in various pastoral, teaching and administrative roles, spread over some 30 years of ordained ministry, are now blended into the Chancellor’s ministry at SVOTS.

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The turning point of time

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on December 25, 2015.

 

Today, at this feast, we stand at the turning point of time.

 

angelsNot simply another turning point, as the world spins on its axis, or rotates around the sun, but the turning point of time itself; the moment from which we measure all time. And more: it is a turning point in the heavens themselves, opening towards us on earth, so that we can hear the angels singing the praise of God, if we have the ears to hear them, not our usual physical sense of sound, which at this time of year is bombarded by all sorts of noise, some of it claiming to be religious – but usually the religion of consumption; but with a purified hearing.

 

It is a turning point at which strange things happen.

 

According to an old tale, told by another story teller, in the night between Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas day, all the animals can speak, though few hear them or know what they say; Simpkin, the cat, as he wanders through the streets looking for mice to eat, can hear them chattering away and singing; but he was not admitted into their conversation; for he had hidden some twist and was prowling for mice to eat, as his master lay sick in bed, muttering to himself: no more twist.

 

That nature is overturned on this night is indeed an old idea. In the second century prayer for midnight, we hear:

 

In this hour every creature hushes for a brief moment to praise the Lord; stars and plants and water stand still at that instant; all the hosts of angels ministering to Him, together with the souls of the righteous, praise God.

 

And from the same period, we hear, in the Protoevangelium of James, how Mary and Joseph also stop, when Mary feels the stirrings of the babe in her womb ready to be born. They find a cave and Joseph goes off to find a midwife:

 

shepherdBut I, Joseph, was walking and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. …

Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still … I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking.

Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.

 

As Christ is born, creation stands still—strange things happen and nature is overturned, the heavens themselves are turned, and we can, if we listen, hear the angels praising (and the mice singing).

 

It is in this midnight silence, Wisdom says, that the firstborn Egyptians were slain by the destroying angel, so that the firstborn of God, Israel, might be set free from slavery, when the Word descended from heaven. While peaceful silence enveloped all things, and night was in the middle of its own swift course, from heaven, from the royal throne, your all-powerful Word, leapt as a stern warrior, into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your irrevocable command as a sharp rapier; standing, it filled all things with death and while it touched heaven, it stood on the earth.

 

This act, in silence, is what we celebrate today, as we too are set free from slavery, when the firstborn Son of God, Christ himself, is born from the Virgin, uniting heaven and earth, and we, in the midst of the death he casts upon the earth, are brought back to life.

 

Three mysteries of God, St Ignatius says, were worked in silence: the virginity of Mary, the birth of Christ, and the Cross. They were shrouded in silence, hidden from this world and its rulers, so that, when creation is silent, God can work, for Christ is the Word emerging from this silence. And it is this silence that St Ignatius asks of the Roman Christians, so that he too might follow Christ in his Passion, and so become a word of God, as did all those martyrs we celebrated in the days leading up to this birth of Christ; for as St Ignatius also says, Christ, the head, is not born without his body also being born.

 

It is this silence, then, that we need, if we are going to hear the angelic ranks singing in amazement today, and to join in their hymns of praise. This is something we will never hear, or be part of, if we remain on the prowl, as was Simpkin, looking to fill our stomachs by eating others, all the while keeping for ourselves what others need. Only when he repented, and brought to his master that which he had held back, only then was the magnificent garment that the mice had been working on only then was it able to be completed.

 

Christ’s body, miraculously woven in the womb of the Virgin, as she spins the thread, the twist, is today present on earth. That it weaves together heaven and earth is possible only because the heavens themselves are opened when they turn today, and when they are opened we can see the end to which the whole of creation (animals as well) are working.

 

Let us not say, then, that we have no more twist, nothing to contribute to the weaving of the glorious body of Christ, but instead give glory, thanksgiving, and praise for all that God has done for us today, giving of ourselves, giving our very selves, in return for truly today, Christ is born!

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Ayios Nicolaos tis Stegis, Nicosia, Cyprus

 

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.

 

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God does not need words

People often ask: how should we pray, in what words, and in what language? Some even say: “I do not pray because I do not know how; I do not know any prayers.” You do not need any specialized skill for prayer. You can simply talk to God. Many Orthodox Churches across the world use a special language in the divine services, such as Church Slavonic or Koine Greek. But in private prayer, when we are alone with God, there is no need for any special language. We can pray to God in the language we use when speaking with people, when thinking.

Prayer should be very simple. St. Isaac the Syrian said:

The whole fabric of your prayer should be succinct. One word saved the publican, and one word made the thief on the cross heir to the heavenly kingdom.

Prayer can be extremely brief. If you are just starting out on your path to prayer, begin with very short prayers, such as can allow you to focus. God does not need words; he needs men’s hearts. Words are secondary; of paramount importance are the feeling and disposition with which we approach God. To approach God without a feeling of reverence or with distraction—when during prayer our mind wanders—is  much more dangerous than saying the wrong words in prayer. Distracted prayer has neither meaning nor value. A simple law is at work: if the words of prayer do not reach our heart, they will not reach God. As it is sometimes put, such prayer does not reach above the ceiling of the room in which we are praying, and it should reach the heavens. Therefore it is very important that each word of prayer should be felt deeply by us. If you are incapable of focusing on the long prayers contained in the prayer books of the Orthodox Church, try your hand at shorter prayers:

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, save.

Lord, help me.

God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

One ascetic struggler said that if we could, with the full force of our feelings—with all our heart and soul—just say the prayer “Lord, have mercy,” then that would be enough for salvation. But the problem is that, as a rule, we cannot say this with all our heart; we cannot say this with all our whole life. Therefore, in order to be heard by God, we tend to use many words.

Let us remember that God longs for our hearts, not for our words. If we turn to him with our whole hearts, then we will certainly get a response.

 

9780881415285__41267.1443033296.300.300Excerpt from Prayer: Encounter with the Living God by His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev). Emphases added.

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The moment we were first called

A homily for the Apostle Andrew, the Holy and All-Praised First Called (commemorated on November 30).

Walking through this dark, cold morning, did you happen to ask yourself, “What in the world am I doing?”

What were we looking for when we got out of bed this morning? What were we looking for when we came to this place—whether we came from the other side of the world, or the other side of the street?

Have we found it? What are we looking for now?

When St. Andrew first followed Jesus, our Lord looked at him and asked, “What do you seek?”

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The calling of the apostles Peter and Andrew. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

What were we seeking when we were first called?

Something inspired us to leave everything and follow Christ to this place. Perhaps it was a fire that burned in our souls, or a light that guided us through the darkness, or a Word that spoke to us in our loneliness.

As Andrew, and Simon Peter and Phillip and Nathanael are called, they leave everything and follow Christ. And we can imagine that in those early days, there was a great deal of excitement, perhaps even some back slapping and self-congratulation. “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

We have found Him, you and I, we are the chosen ones, we can see something amazing in Jesus, and so we leave everything to follow Christ.

But it is a LONG path.

It stretches from the wilderness of Jordan, throughout the Galilee, across the perilous waters of that sea, to the land of the Gaderenes and back, and ultimately the path leads up the long and treacherous road to Jerusalem.

It is a path that starts out bright, hopeful, exciting, thrilling even, but it gets harder, and harder.

And standing there on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley at the Temple, we wonder, just as Andrew did, “Lord, all that you have foretold, when will it come to pass?” But when it becomes clear that the journey ends with a shameful, dishonorable death on Golgotha, nailed to the cross, we realize just how hard it is to follow Christ.

Duccio carrying of the cross

The carrying of the cross. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

It was not easy for St. Andrew, and it is certainly not easy for us.

But it is frighteningly easy to fall away. So frighteningly easy to deny Christ, voluntarily or involuntarily, in word or in deed, in knowledge or in ignorance.

And so today, on this cold, dark, morning, we may feel a bit like Andrew and the other disciples who were so dispirited as Jesus hung upon the Cross. But just because we might be dispirited, does not mean that we are defeated.

In those dark days, Andrew’s faith may not have burned as bright as it once had in those exciting days of leaving everything and following Christ. And this morning maybe our faith does not burn as bright as it once did, when we first we made exciting decisions to go off in new directions. Perhaps Andrew’s faith was nothing more than the tiniest spark of a smoldering wick. And perhaps that is all the faith that we have.

But that one small spark is all it takes.

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Pentecost. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

In that upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, the smoldering wick of faith was fanned into a tongue of fire. No matter how weak their faith had been, each one of them became a light in the darkness, and they were sent out into the world to bring Christ to a lonely world.

At that moment Andrew began to understood his calling.

Christ

According to legend, he traveled far and wide, preaching the Gospel in Cyprus, Georgia, Romania, and Kiev. And in his most difficult moments, on those cold dark mornings, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the warm shores of the Sea of Galilee, perhaps he thought back to Jesus’ first words, “What are you seeking?”

No matter where he was, no matter what he was doing, no matter how dark or cold, he needed to look no further than his own heart, for as St. Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 5.5) Filled with that love, Andrew saw the image of God in everyone he met. He saw the image of God in the poor, the angry, the sick, the despairing, the lonely, the stranger. It was this love of God that allowed him to rejoice and give thanks even as he offered his life as a martyr.

Today as we give thanks in this Liturgy, we pray to God, “Send down your holy spirit upon us and upon these gifts.” As we pray this prayer today, may God remind us of the moment that we were first called.

Andrew

By the prayers of St. Andrew the First Called, may we fulfill our calling to do God’s work: being faithful in everything we do, especially those things that are annoying or unpleasant; offering a kind word to the people that God places in our life, especially the ones who are the most difficult to love; and giving thanks to God for all things, especially the crosses that we are blessed to bear on this day.

By the prayers of St. Andrew the First Called, may our hearts catch fire with faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen (SVOTS ’96) received his M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and completed his doctoral dissertation at Drew University in 2002. From 2000 to 2011 he taught at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell Connecticut, where he also served as Director of Distance Learning. He was ordained to the priesthood in February 2004, and currently serves on the faculty of SVOTS as Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program.

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A good steward for others

stjcfilterFor our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need. Just as an official in the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead for his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants.

Therefore let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you. This happens also in great households. Many people have entrusted their financial affairs to their household servants. Those who have received this trust keep what has been given to them, and do not misuse the money, but distribute it where and when their master directs. You also must do this. For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.

 

new_image__93654.1348857563.300.300From St. John Chrysostom’s second sermon on Lazarus and the rich man, as published in On Wealth and Poverty (SVS Press, 1984).

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