Why can’t we just do the right thing? A Meditation on John 5.1-15

Very Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen is director of St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Program and assistant professor of homiletics and rhetoric.  He delivered this sermon on the Sunday of the Paralytic, May 19, 2019.

Christ is Risen!

Picture yourself driving down a country road…at a moderate speed

It is a beautiful, bright spring day, the sky is clear, no traffic at all, just clear easy driving.

And up in the distance, you see a squirrel hop out onto the side of the road.

He twitches his bushy tail a few times and then…he darts across the road.

duminica_a_iv-a_dupa_pasti_-_a_slabanogului_2No problem, so you slow down a bit, to give him a chance to make it across the road safely.

He’s got plenty of time, no crisis, all he needs to do is just run across the road and jump into the bushes.

Everything looks fine…but…just before he makes it across the road to safety he hears you coming,

And what does he do?

Of course, he STOPS…in the road.

He only needs to go a few more feet and he’d be safe and clear,

But no, he’s stopped in the road, looking up at this big giant thing zooming straight at him.

When I’m the one driving the car, sometimes I actually start talking to the squirrel,

“Dude, what are you doing? Don’t just stand there, you’re so close, keep going, get out of the road.

No…no…don’t turn around and go back…OK, fine, but just keep going, just get off the road

WHAT?!? No. Don’t turn around again? Will you just make up your mind and get off of the road!?!”

In moments like this, we know exactly what the squirrel needs to do, it is so obvious.

But for some reason the squirrel just can’t do the right thing.

He’s paralyzed with fear, in the middle of the road.

I imagine that inside of that little squirrel brain, barely as big as a grape, there’s a furious conversation going on:

“Road, car, noise, run, road, car, noise, run, road, car, noise, run…”

Somehow, in that moment, events have overwhelmed the tiny squirrel mind, and this leads to some very bad decision making—or, to complete paralysis.

Both options can lead to a very bad outcome.

Now I must confess, that even though I am a human being, and I possess a brain that is vastly larger than the tiny creature on the road, I find myself in similar situations of being overwhelmed, making bad decisions, or feeling like I’m totally paralyzed.

Sometimes I know exactly what I should do, but I can think up all sorts of reasons not to do it. Maybe I do something, or say something to someone in the heat of the moment. And then afterward I say to myself, “Why in the world did I do that? Why did I SAY that?”

“Oh, no, what does he thing about me? Is he angry? Maybe he’s REALLY angry. Oh, no, is he going to talk to other people? Is this going to lead to some big crisis?”

“But, wait a minute, I wasn’t entirely in the wrong, something had to be said, someone needed to put his foot down…”

“But…did I have to say it in just that way? Oh, man, I really could have said it better…”

“Maybe I should just go and apologize and ask forgiveness…BUT…what if he didn’t even notice…that could turn it into an even bigger deal…”

“OK, I’ll just say nothing, and let it pass…BUT…what if he’s really angry?”

“What am I saying? I’m a Christian! I should just ask for forgiveness…”

“Ahhh…but what if he sees that as a sign of weakness, and uses it against me…”

This is the human equivalent of being the squirrel in the road.

Asking for forgiveness is the obvious decision, I know it is the right thing to do.

Jesus says, that if I have offended someone, then I should stop what I’m doing, go and make amends with that person. But yet, it is so easy to get balled up in all sorts of reasons, and counter reasons, and arguments and counter arguments, and before I know it I’m like that squirrel that runs, then stops, then jumps back, turns…and then just freezes, paralyzed in the road in the face of danger.

Today we hear about a man who is paralyzed, lying near a pool that is supposed to have healing properties, but only if you are able to get into the water at just the right time.

Seems kind of like a cruel joke doesn’t it?

The man is suffering from paralysis, and in order to be healed he has to MOVE at just the right time. He’s in a real crisis. The one thing that he needs to do in order to get better, to get on with his life, is EXACTLY the one thing that is the most difficult.

In his mind, he thinks that the problem is that he doesn’t have anyone to get him into the pool at the right time. He might have been saying to himself, “If I just had the right kind of friends, the right kind of family, not the small, timid kind, but a the big burly, strong, loud tough kind, the kind who could hold everyone else back, and lift me up, and carry me into that water at just the right time—Ah, then I could be cured! Then I could get on with my life!“

This man is certainly not the first person to find himself in this kind of situation.

Many, many years before, the people of Israel were traveling in the wilderness, and God commanded them to enter a new country, a place where they could be safe and healthy, and prosper.

So they sent scouts to see what they land was like, and the scouts brought back word that the people who lived there were big, and powerful, and frightening.

God said to them, “Don’t be afraid, I will be with you. Enter the land, I will protect you, just like I protected you when you left Egypt. Everything will be fine.”

But the people said, “Well, we’re not so sure. Maybe we should just stay here and play it safe.”

And they did nothing. They stayed right where they were, out in the wilderness.

But after a while, the people said, “OK. We’re not quite sure if God is going to be with us, but we’ve got a plan of our own. Now we’ve got it figured out, now we can do this.”

So off they went, armed with their own plans and their own cleverness…but things turned out very badly. There was a great conflict and the people were chased away and they were forced to stay out in the wilderness for a long time, a very long time. They were stuck there for thirty-eight years. (Deut 2.14)

Sound familiar? Remember our man who’s paralyzed, lying by the pool with all of the reasons for why he can’t be healed?

Yes, he’s been there for THIRTY-EIGHT years, just like the people of Israel who had imagined that they could somehow solve their own problems through their own cleverness.

Now, to be clear, it is a blessing to have a mind, and to be intelligent, and to be able to think about the world and life, and make informed, thoughtful decisions. But the danger is that our thoughts can become the primary obstacle to doing God’s will.

On one hand, we may think that we can figure it all out, and like the people of Israel in the wilderness, decide that we can work outside of God’s plan. This can lead to disaster and being stuck in the wilderness.

Or on the other hand, we can find ourselves completely paralyzed by our own thoughts, immobilized by all the powerful reasons why we haven’t got the right family or friends or colleagues, or opportunities, and we’re stuck, paralyzed, so close to the healing pool, but yet so far away.

Today Jesus comes to that man at the pool, physically infirm and paralyzed by his own rationalization, and Jesus comes to us, and He asks,

“Do you want to be healed?”

The man starts into this classic explanation for why he’s there, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the water at the right time and other people get into the water before me.”

And here, it is like Jesus says, “Uh-uh, stop talking. I got it. You’re stuck, you’re clueless. Rise, take up your bed and walk.”

Rise, take up your bed and walk.

And that’s it.

Jesus did not interrogate the man, “Do you want to be healed? Do you REALLLY want to be healed? If I heal you, are you willing to do what I tell you to do? Do you promise?”

Of course not, Jesus knows that the man is broken: his body is broken, his mind is broken, and his heart is broken.

Jesus knows that the man is paralyzed in his body, and paralyzed in his soul, so of course Jesus is not going to demand that the guy make some demonstration of his cleverness and clear thinking.

Jeus says, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.”

And the man is healed.

This is how God works in our lives.

The Son of God came into the world in the form of a servant, lived among us, taught and preached, healed the sick and cast out demons.

And when the powerful and clever and self-righteous rejected him, he allowed them to humiliate and torture and kill him on the Cross.

And then God raised Jesus from the dead, so that we would know that the hatred and evil and sin of man, is powerless in the face of God’s love.

And God did not do any of this because we deserved it, or because we had pleased him, or because we had made sufficient promises to guarantee that we would be obedient. Because, that is not love, that is a legal business transaction.

God did what God did, and God does what God does, not because we have done anything to deserve it. God did what God did, and God does what God does because he loves us, and because he wants us to be whole, and because he wants us to find true and everlasting life in him.

Today Jesus heals the man at the pool as a gift, a free gift of mercy and grace. And today, Jesus heals us as a free gift of mercy and grace.

How does Christ heal us? Our Lord heals us through his Resurrection, because in the Resurrection we know that suffering and death are not the end of the story. In the Resurrection we see that through suffering and death, through the Cross is the way to life.

Christ did not come into the world to eliminate the pain of life, He took on the pain of life to show us how to truly live as God created us to live—how to live in the midst of suffering and death in a way that brings life and love and hope to others.

In Christ, in the Risen Lord, suffering and tragedy is no longer a dead end.

When Christ was placed into the tomb, it appeared that it was the end, that it was all over.

But it was not, for the tomb is empty, and Christ is risen.

I was once talking with wise friend, and he asked me why I had not done something, a good work that I knew I should do. And I told him all of the good reasons that I had not to do it all of the great excuses I had for not doing God’s will, for not using the gifts that God gave me.

And this friend patiently listened to all of my reasons, just like God patiently listens to all of our reasons, and then after I finished talking, he looked at me with this gentle smile.

And there was a moment of silence, and with a twinkle in his eye he said, “Do it scared.”

Do it scared.

This is what it means to live in the Resurrection of Christ.

We see the challenges and dangers of the world, we do not live a blind faith, but we are obedient to Christ’s commands, we do what the Lord commands us to do, and sometimes we do it scared, not because we are clever or tough or strong, but because Christ is risen. Because the love of God is more powerful than our fear.

This is why a parent doesn’t hesitate to go into harm’s way to save a child. Because of love.

This is why a spouse will run into a burning building to save the one they love. Because of love.

This is even why a soldier who has finished his tour of duty will volunteer to go back to war, in order to help keep his fellow soldiers safe. Because of love.

When God commands us to do what is difficult and frightening, motivated by love—by divine love—we do it scared.

This is how a frightened fisherman like St. Peter, a man so timid and confused that he publicly—PUBLICLY—denied Christ, could go on to become the chief of the apostles. In Christ’s resurrection Peter’s fears and worries and personal clever agendas were no longer a dead end, but became a way to new life.

For us, the greatest miracle of Christ’s resurrection happens in our hearts.

So, today, in our suffering, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen. In our brokenness, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen. In our confusion, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen.


“The opportunity in our sufferings” (Mark 9.17-31)

DSC008867 April 2019

Deacon Basil Crivella is a 3rd-year Seminarian in St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program. He belongs to the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of the Midwest. Deacon Basil prepared this sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of St. John Climacus.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Today we hear the story of a man who is at the end of his wits. He is totally desperate. His son, whom he loves, is severely afflicted. And this man, this father, is doing everything he can think of to help.

Imagine how much he has spent on trying to get help. How many people has he gone to see?  How many healers? How many specialists? How many doctors and pharmacists? And picture how hard he works to pay for the treatments: the long hours and blisters on his hands. All of it so he can scrounge the money to pay for the help; pay for the medicine; pay for the special equipment.

Imagine how, after working the extra hours, he comes home to his son, even though he is exhausted. Even though his back is killing him, and his eyes are heavy with the need for sleep, he stays with his son.

The father strokes his hair. The father helps to dress him and feed him. The father watches over him, lest the poor afflicted boy throws himself into the fireplace, or drowns himself in the nearby stream, or tries to hurt himself in some other way.

Imagine how this father feels when nothing that is supposed to help his son works—the grinding despair.

His hopes rise. A new treatment. A new person who might be able to help. This will finally be it.  This will finally bring relief to his beloved son.

And then, the hopes are smashed into pieces on the ground. The medicine doesn’t work. The treatment doesn’t help. The experts are all confounded.

Even the Apostles seem to be powerless.

Brothers and sisters, as most of you probably know, this gospel reading really cuts close to my heart. I have a lot in common with this father.

But it’s not just the affliction of our loved ones that brings us to hopelessness like this father. Sometimes we ourselves are the afflicted one, desperately looking for a cure. For help. All of us come to moments where we’re hurting, where things are totally messed up, and it feels like there’s no one there that can help us; like no matter what we do, we can’t find a way out of the mess life has put us into; that there is no hope.

This is the great lie that the fallen world whispers to us in these moments.

The demons say, “Your relationship with your family, your friend, or your neighbor is ruined.  Don’t even bother trying to love them. There’s no hope.”

The demons say, “Your health, or the health of your loved one is just wrecked.  It’s going to be nothing but pain and misery forever. Don’t even bother trying to get help. There’s no hope.”

The demons say, “That situation with your schoolwork and grades, or your job and making ends meet—Don’t even bother with those. Nothing is ever going to change. There’s no hope.”

The prince of lies tells us in our deepest sufferings that there’s no hope, especially when we cry out and seek for help, and nothing seems to be working.

The evil one tells us, “There’s no hope, because God doesn’t really care!”

It’s like the Tom Waits song: “God’s away, God’s away, God’s away on business.”

Business! You’re not important to Him!

But God isn’t away! He’s not off being too busy with something else. Christ is in our midst! God sees you when you’re struggling. God hears you when you cry out to Him! God is present with you in your pain. Even in your darkest moments, when you feel like everything is falling apart, you can turn to Him. Like the man who has suffered so much, we can come to Christ!  We can pour our heart and our sufferings out to Christ.

The man who kneels before Christ cries, “If you can do anything, have pity on us!  Help us!”

Christ tells us, “All things are possible to him who believes!”

The one who believes has their sufferings transfigured by Christ.

The pain, the despair, and the uncertainty no longer lead them to lash out; to look for someone or something to blame; to yell at the family and neighbors who visit or try to help; to get angry with the doctors or professionals when the results aren’t what we want or need; to just throw up our hands in despair and not care anymore.

Instead, our own sufferings become our opportunity to show Christ to others—to be like Christ when He suffers; Christ who shows love to the world despite the sufferings we inflict on Him, despite the pain He endures: the love that doesn’t look for someone to blame but carries the cross up the hill; the love that doesn’t show anger or outrage but endures with patience; the love that doesn’t give up or quit, but continues on; the love that opens our heart to the suffering and pain of others.

What I’ve learned more than anything from the suffering and sorrow of my own life, of my own situation, is that EVERYONE suffers. And even though the situations I suffer through are mine—the pain, the frustration, the fear, the sadness—they’re the same.

For me. For you. For the father in the story. For the person sitting next to you. For everybody.

And the love that Christ has is the love that He shows during His own suffering, the love that leads Him to carry His cross all the way up to Golgotha and die on it for us.

That love that doesn’t judge. That love is patient. That love is kind, even to the end and despite the suffering.

We can show that same love, and in the same way—even during our own sufferings.

To me. To you. To someone like the father in the story. To the person sitting next to you. To everybody.

And we show that love every time, despite our own pain and our own sorrows, and our own problems; we seek out someone else that we know is hurting. And we spend a little time with them. And we listen to them.  And we pray for them.  And we try to be like Christ to them. And when someone who sees us hurting and comes to us, we spend time with them, too. And we listen to them. And we pray for them. And we try to be like Christ to them.

The love that God has that will raise us up on the last day to a place where pain, sickness, sorrow, and even sighing have fled away!

And God gives us that love even now. And even during our greatest sufferings, we can share it with others.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen!

“The Angelic Life” (Luke 10.16-21)

Archpriest Sergius Halvorsen is director of the Doctor of Ministry Program and assistant professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He delivered this sermon on November 8, 2018 on the Feast of the Synaxis of Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers at the Seminary’s Three Hierarchs Chapel.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today the disciples are excited. Jesus sent them out two by two, telling them to heal the sick and proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near. And now the disciples return, and they are excited.

They say, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

And Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

“I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”

This must have made the disciples even more excited.

I know it makes me excited, to think about the power that God gives to his followers.

But then, Jesus does the strangest thing.  Just as I start to get excited about my power, Jesus says, “Don’t rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Wait a minute.

Sure, having my name written in heaven is nice, but having power over demons, now that is something to be proud of. That is impressive!

And this is probably exactly what the disciples were thinking: “Hey, look what we can do in the name of Jesus. This is impressive. We really have power.”

So when Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven,” perhaps it’s a warning—a warning against the pride that was Satan’s tragic downfall. Perhaps it was a reminder that “God has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Lk 1.51-2).”

Instead of glorifying God, the evil one chose to glorify himself, and this was his undoing. Satan fell like lightning from heaven, because he was proud, because he tried to use God’s gifts to glorify himself.

And how tempting is it for us to use our God-given talents to make ourselves look good?

“Look at my power.” “Look at my ability.” “Look at me.”

How easy is it to make the same mistake as the evil one—the mistake of thinking that always know best, that my gifts and talents make me better than everyone else?

On the last day the books will be opened and the deeds will be tried. All my power, my status and my strength will be stripped away and my secret sins of pride will be revealed: all the times I used my God-given talents to make myself look good; all the times I put down my neighbor to exalt myself; all the times I expected others to serve me instead of, “Bearing my brother’s burden and fulfilling the law of Christ” (Gal 6.2).

God’s judgment comes upon the proud ones of the earth.

And this judgment begins today, for the way of pride is the road to hell. Because pride is more addictive and more toxic than the strongest narcotic. Pride gives you a fleeting moment of intoxication. You feel great about yourself, but like a flash of lightning, it is gone. And then I’m left in agony, craving praise, desperately looking for the next injection of self-glory. And even if we somehow manage a prolonged intoxication of vanity, we live in constant fear that other people are more popular and more well-liked; the hard work and success of others is not cause for joy, but a threat to my reputation, a threat to my glory.

There is no peace in pride, only the torment of the addicted.  Slavery to self-glory is a living hell.

Yet our merciful Lord does not allow us to languish in sin and death. Christ rescues us from our pride through his extreme humility;  through his humiliating death on the Cross, Christ shows us the humble path of salvation.

Today we celebrate Archangel Michael and the bodiless powers who show us the way of humility.

In all their angelic power, in all their spiritual splendor, in all their heavenly magnificence, the bodiless powers ceaselessly glorify God and do His will—in humility. It was the angel Gabriel that announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God. It was an angel who told the shepherds the good news of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It was an angel who rolled back the stone from the tomb, and said to the women disciples, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said….go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead.”

The name “angel” means messenger, and this is why we aspire to the angelic life, to be God’s humble servants, God’s humble messengers, using our God-given talents to glorify God.

But how, as flesh and blood human beings, do we glorify the invisible God?

St. John reminds us that, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1Jn 4.20).

So, if I don’t love the neighbor whom I see, how can I love the unseen God? If I don’t honor the neighbor whom I see, how can I honor the unseen God? And if I don’t thank the neighbor whom I see, how can I thank the unseen God?

Our path of humility begins by honoring the people who love us and care for us, and help us in so many ways. Honor and affirm your patient and longsuffering family. Honor and affirm your faithful friends. Honor and affirm the people who work tirelessly on your behalf. Thank the generous benefactors who support your ministry. Thank the people who do their job faithfully day in and day out. Thank the strangers whose unsung service makes our life easier.

By loving, and honoring and thanking the neighbor, we follow Christ on the life-giving path of humility. And as we follow Christ to the Cross, we are escorted by angelic hosts who are arrayed in battle formation around us, protecting us from the fiery darts of the evil one.

With fear and love we draw near to the holy of holies to give thanks and glorify the almighty God, around whom stand thousands of archangels and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, who soar aloft borne on their pinions, singing the triumphant hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy!  Together with these blessed angelic powers, we join in that angelic song, saying, “Holy art thou, O God, who so loved the world that you gave your only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have life everlasting.”


Lenten Reflection: “On the Way”

seraphim_okeefe_0.large (450 x 450 max)Seraphim O’Keefe is a third-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s. He delivered this reflection as a sermon at Christ the Savior Church in Southbury, CT, where he serves for his parish assignment.

*Author’s note: Quotations from The Ladder of Divine Ascent and other texts are often changed in this reflection to make them more immediately comprehensible.

In the gospel story, especially in the Gospel of Mark, which we just heard on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, almost everything happens “on the way.” It doesn’t say on the way to what, but it all takes place “on the way.”

In the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel (9.17–31), Jesus is on his way down from the mountain, and he finds a crowd arguing with his disciples. He finds out that a man had brought his epileptic son to the disciples for healing, but they could not do it. When Jesus sees the desperation of the man, the confusion of the crowd, the disciples’ failure, and the general immaturity of their faith, he responds by crying out: “O faithless generation! How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”

How does that feel, to hear those words from the mouth of Jesus? They sound like a cry of impatience, or exasperation—as if God might eventually give up on us and leave if we don’t get on top of things: “How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Is God impatient, or is he exasperated with our immaturity, our confusion, and our failures? Are you impatient?

Later on, the disciples came to Jesus privately to ask him why they had not been able to heal the boy. And to that Jesus simply said, “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting.”

There again, it can seem like Jesus means, “If you were on top of things, praying and fasting, if you tried harder, if you did more, everything would be fine. We wouldn’t have these problems.”

Does that sound that familiar? Maybe it sounds like that to us, because these are the kinds of messages we carry in our heads every day. And especially in Lent, when we are trying to get on top of our spiritual life with more prayer and fasting. And the more so on the Sunday of St. John Climacus, who wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, the ultimate manual of prayer and fasting.

It talks about the spiritual life as steps on a ladder. If you’re like me, just the sight of this book makes you uncomfortable. Just to look at some of the chapter titles:

Step 1: On Renunciation of the World;

Step 5: On Painstaking and True Repentance;

Step 15: On Incorruptible Purity and Chastity to which the corruptible attain by Toil and Sweat;

Step 20: On Bodily Vigil, and how to use it to attain Spiritual Vigil.

Hearing that kind of makes you want to give up before you start.

But the image of life as ascending a ladder has a particular resonance in our culture, where we’re always trying to get ahead. We think of climbing the social ladder, the corporate ladder, or the economic ladder. Bookshelves today are full of “ladders.” They have titles like “Five Steps to Realizing your Goals and Resolutions” (that sounds nice), “Six Steps to Raising Happy, Healthy Children” (these are real titles, by the way), “Seven Steps to Saving your Relationship,” and “Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back”—or, how about, “FIFTY Steps to Self- Esteem”!

It’s not that I’m saying all these are bad things—we do want your back to feel better—but at the same time, the message we internalize

can be, “you are never enough,” and “your life is never enough.” Life is where your goals and resolutions are realized, and you have to climb the ladder to get there. So our life is always somewhere else, and so our mind is always somewhere else; and the world around us looks pretty crummy. We get impatient and exasperated. We say, “how long can I even bear this?” We would like to skip over the intermediate steps. We are impatient about being on the way to something.

But as one poet said, “It is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability, and that it may take a very long time” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Trust in the Slow Work of God).

In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John tells the story of a man of the “magisterial rank” named Isidore, who went to become a monk.[1] But the abbot of the monastery recognized that Isidore was “full of mischief,” as it says. So the abbot said, “If you have decided to take upon yourself the yoke of Christ, I want you to first of all learn obedience.”

Isidore replied, “As iron to the smith, so I render myself in submission to you, holy father.”

The Abbot said, “I truly want you, brother, to stand at the gate of the monastery, and to fall down before everyone passing through, and to say, ‘Pray for me, father.’”

So Isidore did this every day, and after seven years the abbot wanted to bring him in and ordain him. But Isidore begged to be allowed to stay there at the gate until his last breath, because he thought it would be soon. And the abbot allowed it.

While Isidore was still living, St. John had the opportunity to ask him what it was like for him during those seven years he spent at the gate.

Isidore, wanting to benefit him, told St. John:

In the beginning, I judged that I had been sold into slavery for my sins; so it was with bitterness, with a great effort, and as it were with blood that I made the prostration. But after a year had passed, my heart no longer felt sorrow, and I expected a reward for my patience from God Himself. But when another year had gone by, I began to be deeply conscious…of my unworthiness even to live in the monastery, and to see and meet the fathers, and partake of the Divine Mysteries. And bending low with my eyes, and still lower with my thought, I sincerely asked for the prayers of those going in and going out.

So, if you notice, those first stages Isidore passed through are exactly what we have been talking about. In the beginning he was impatient and exasperated with his life at the gate. Then he began to dream of some future reward, and his mind was somewhere else. But gradually he learned to be “deeply consciousness” of what a great and holy thing it is to be here—to live here in the community, to see and meet the others, and to receive Holy Communion. He was still at the gate; the people around him didn’t change; living his way of life didn’t change; but he learned that deeper consciousness.

Can you imagine coming to see your own life as it is, with all the details, as great and holy?

Isidore’s ascent in the story is not the same kind of ascent as climbing our social ladders and corporate ladders.

This is divine ascent.

Divine ascent is different, because God is not just up at the top of the ladder, waiting for us to climb our way up. He is with you from the very beginning. And that fundamentally changes the way you see the process.

We have an image of Divine Ascent in the story of Jacob’s ladder (Gen 28.10–22).  Jacob was on his way somewhere, and while he was camping on the ground, with a rock for his pillow, he saw a vision of ladder from earth to heaven, with angels of God ascending and descending, and Jacob saw God above the ladder. This was his first real encounter with the God of his father, Abraham.

God blessed Jacob, saying, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, for I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.”

After hearing this, Jacob got up, and looked around him, and said,

“Surely, the LORD is in this place, and I knew it not.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

God is not waiting for us to get on top of things. God is not impatient with us. God does not give up on us.  God is here with us, wherever we are in our life. And He promises to stay with us the whole way.

If this book (The Ladder) seems discouraging, it is because we don’t notice where St. John begins. He says:

Let us begin like this: God belongs to all free beings.

He is the life of all, the salvation of all—faithful and unfaithful, just and unjust, pious and impious, passionate and dispassionate, monks and laymen, wise and simple, healthy and sick, young and old—just as the sight of the sun, and the changes of the season are the same for everyone; ‘for there is no favoritism with God.’”

That is where we begin.

So prayer and fasting, and anything we do, are not how we climb our way to God. They are not how we become good enough, get on top of things, or make all our problems go away. (If you are doing more praying and fasting this Lent, you probably find you only notice your problems more.) In all this, we are not trying to get God to be with us, and to bear with us.

God stays with us through the whole process.

St. John describes the way of prayer and fasting in an unusual way: he says it is “to strive to keep your incorporeal being enclosed within the house of your body, paradoxical as this may be.”

It is to strive to enclose your “incorporeal being,” that is, all the powers of your soul—thought, imagination, desire— to keep this within the “house of your body.” Because our mind always wants to be somewhere else, as we’ve said—imagining different futures; rehashing different pasts; solving problems; making plans. We feel anxious, and we look for solutions. We feel bored. We look for something to pay attention to. We feel hungry. We look for something to satisfy.

But the way of prayer and fasting is to keep your mind right here, where your body is.

We stay right here, here with the hunger; here with the boredom; with our emptiness, our anxiety, our pain, our failings. We stay with our feeling of being incomplete. Because that’s where we are. We are incomplete. We are anxious. We have problems. We try things and fail, sometimes. And that’s normal. That’s actually good. That means we’re alive. It means we are on the way. And being on the way is a holy ground, because God is with us on the way. He is here, forming us into what we will be.

This doesn’t mean staying in one place. Your feelings might be telling you that you need to make some changes, maybe even big changes, or you need to get out of a bad situation. And that’s good. That’s part of being on the way.

Or you might need to stay right where you are and change your attitude. And that’s good, too.

Or you might not have any idea what you need to do.

You might think you know exactly what you need, and wonder why you keep failing to do it. That is normal.

Only God knows what this new spirit, gradually forming within you, will be (Chardin, Trust in the Slow Work of God).

We are not trying to skip past the process—the anxiety, the pain, and the incompleteness are still there. It still feels that way. But we are learning at the same time to also have that deeper consciousness, that this is what it’s like to be on the way. This is what it’s like to be formed in the image of God.

This place we’re in, with all its joys and sorrows and troubling details, is holy ground. We can look around and say, “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.”

God is with us, right where we are in our life’s journey. We are on holy ground, even at this moment.

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Icons in Sound, and the Music of Father Sergei Glagolev

By Harrison Russin, Ph.D. candidate in Musicology, Duke University;
Dean’s Fellow and Lecturer in Liturgical Music, St. Vladimir’s Seminary

On Saturday, February 10, 2018, at 6:30 p.m., the seminary Chorale will commence its “Orthodox Masterpieces” series by singing Great Vespers in Three Hierarchs Chapel, featuring select compositions by Archpriest Sergei Glagolev. Father Sergei is noted for his pioneering work in introducing English-language musical compositions into Orthodox Christian church services—inspired hymnography with a uniquely American sound. Following the liturgical service, fellow worshippers are invited to hear an educational talk by seminary faculty and to enjoy a light reception.

As a prelude  to the event, faculty member Harrison Russin wrote the following essay. He especially emphasizes Fr. Sergei’s insistence upon the primacy of the text in liturgical musical composition, and upon the dynamic interplay between the meaning of a musical composition and its effect upon the listener, and the response of the listener

It is commonplace to find Orthodox church music described as “icons in sound” (Google the phrase if you want proof). This saying demonstrates how Orthodox Christians think visually, sometimes at the expense of the aural—a tendency that goes beyond the Orthodox Church. The field of sound studies has been developing since the early 2000s, and one of its unifying aspects has been to “temper a tendency to think of hearing as a ‘secondary sense’—secondary, that is, to vision” (from the Grove Music Online article on Sound studies). Our vocabulary is indeed replete with multiple terms of sight—gaze, stare, look, gape, scrutinize, ogle, eyeball; but we have few similar terms for hearing. Sight indeed imposes itself differently than sound, and it is a mistake to simply resort to describing church music as “sounded icons” when the two media are different in nature.

Furthermore, we have difficulty understanding what an icon is. The icon is undoubtedly the most distinctive artwork of the Orthodox Church, but the term does not solely signify the panel icons we are used to seeing in churches—not to mention greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, and bracelets. The earliest Christian considerations of icon include materials and representations we rarely think about today—the very architecture of the church building, the decorations on the chalice, the ornate knee-high chancel barriers (which later developed into the modern iconostasis), the processional cross. While icons are often called “windows into heaven,” a more appropriate metaphor is the mirror. As Anna Kartsonis writes,

The icon … remains both constant and flexible in communicating the interrelation and interaction between the prototype, its representation, and the faithful. It witnesses and confirms the objective and multiple reality of the event it represents, and its effectiveness for the beholder (“The Responding Icon,” 75–76).

FE_Orthodox Masterpieces_Glagolev_Moody
(from left) Renowned Orthodox composers Fr. Sergei Glagolev with Fr. Ivan Moody, on campus together, 2016. [photo: Mary Honoré]

In other words, the icon’s essence consists of both the image and its beholder, the text and its reader, the music and its listener.

I offer this as a prelude for approaching the musical compositions of Fr Sergei Glagolev, whom St Vladimir’s Seminary will be honoring on Saturday, February 10, 2018, with a vespers service featuring his music. Orthodox Church music has the tendency to invoke sentimentalism and nostalgia. We must carefully consider what that means for the reality that this “icon” bears witness to. That attachment is the underlying reason for most defenses of singing Orthodox music in its original language: “It just sounds holier in Slavonic!” Fr Sergei, in his compositions, has always pushed against sentimentality. That is not to say his music is not beautiful—he displays compositional mastery in his diverse use of harmonies, voicing, and text setting. But, for Fr Sergei, the text holds primacy, and his musical settings serve the text. His music is written with American Orthodox in mind, and its essence—consisting of the music and its listener—obtains an awareness of the principles of Orthodox church singing and liturgy.

Take, for example, his setting of the communion hymn (“koinonikon”) for the Nativity of Our Lord—“The Lord Has Sent Redemption to His People.” The usual presentation of the communion hymn in the Slavic tradition is to sing it as recitational text on one chord. Fr Sergei instead gives us an alternation between a refrain and the psalm verses, an ancient liturgical formula still preserved in our prokeimenon and alleluia verses, as well as other hymns like “Blessed is the man” and the Polyeleos. The musical meter here is telling—we have four bars of four, created by repeating the first line (“The Lord has sent redemption”) as necessary. Such regular meter is infrequent in the “traditional” Orthodox hymns of the Greek and Slavic traditions (and when we do have them, it is usually a giveaway that the composition is of recent, usually 19th– or 20th-century, vintage). The modal character of the harmony and melody fits in with the 19th-century harmonizations of Russian chant, as it avoids the sharpened seventh scale degree. The voicing takes its start from typical Slavic formulation, with the tenor and soprano lines in parallel sixths, but the bass and alto are static in comparison, not taking any leaps. The style is idiosyncratically American but drawing upon historical and national references which inform the Orthodox experience in America today. It is inclusive in its scope, drawing the listeners—cradle, convert, immigrant, native—to witness to the Lord’s promised redemption for his people.

I think when most people speak of “icons in sound” they have in mind a strict discipline associated with Orthodox liturgical composition, the kind of censorship and rigor that barred Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil from being performed in church, the kind of unemotional hieraticism we are used to seeing in icon depictions of saints. But Fr Sergei’s music opens another realm of meaning of “icons in sound,” icons which embrace the listener and reflect the jubilant reality of the Lord’s redemption.

If St. John Chrysostom had watched the Super Bowl!

By Alumnus Archpriest Steven Kostoff (Master of Divinity, ’81)

This pales beside the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, and the real ‘Super Sunday’, Pascha!

The Super Bowl and the secular Super Sunday is now over. One more game for the history books (though I rather doubt that serious history books record Super Bowl game results). The colossal social phenomenon — the Super Bowl — was viewed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide this past Sunday.  Not to be disparaging or dismissive, it might yet be wise to approach this phenomenon from the perspective of our shared Orthodox Christian faith.  No sense carrying on about the hype and the madness. When all is said and done, it is what it is.

eqrBut I could not avoid speculating on how someone like Saint John Chrysostom, who fell asleep in the Lord in AD 407, would have approached the Super Bowl phenomenon in his own unique and pastoral manner.  Of course, there is a huge chronological gap between Saint John’s time and our own, but we also know that there ‘is nothing new under the sun,” and we can discover some very close parallels just under the surface when comparing different eras and their cultures.  Saint John very well knew and understood the lure of the “games” and other forms of public entertainment in his own time, as he lived in large, cosmopolitan and urban settings such as Constantinople and Antioch. Such urban settings invariably had a hippodrome — the equivalent of our stadiums — at the center of a teeming social milieu that was also open to public entertainment.

What is quite interesting in Saint John’s pastoral approach is that even if there is an implicit criticism of these public forms of entertainment (as he was very critical of the “theatre” as it existed in his day), that was never his main concern.  Saint John would employ what we would call today “sports” and other diverse forms of entertainment in order to exhort his flock to be vigilant and committed in its adherence to and practice of the Gospel.  Being a “fan” of a sport is far from being a “member” of the Church.  As a pastor, Saint John would challenge his flock to ensure that the great gap in that distinction is not somehow closed by lack of vigilance.

The great saint was fully aware of a kind of nominal membership in the Church, and he was quick to point out how erosive of genuine faith that lack of commitment could be for the entire flock under his pastoral care.  Saint John was basically asking: Are Christians as committed to the Gospel and the life of the Church as they are to the participants and performers in the “entertainment industry” of the fourth and fifth centuries?  Primarily, this would include athletes and actors. Do Christians show the same level of passion for the Gospel as do the fans of the games and theatre? Here is one example from among many of how Saint John used his rhetorical skills in challenging Christians on this front:

“We run eagerly to dances and amusements.  We listen with pleasure to the foolishness of singers. We enjoy the foul words of actors for hours without getting bored.  And yet when God speaks we yawn, we scratch ourselves and feel dizzy.  Most peoples would run rabidly to the horse track, although there is no roof there to protect the audience from rain, even when it rains heavily or when the wind is lifting everything.  They don’t mind bad weather or the cold or the distance. Nothing keeps them in their homes. When they are about to go to church, however, then the soft rain becomes an obstacle to them.  And if you ask them who Amos or Obadiah is, or how many prophets or apostles there are, they can’t even open their mouths.  Yet they can tell you every detail about the horses, the singers and the actors.  What kind of state is this?”

Yet, this rhetorical deflation of the theatre and games serves as a backdrop that only intensifies the strength of his descriptions of the manifold riches of the Church, especially the Eucharist. From the same homily, here is Saint John’s impassioned and rhetorically brilliant description of the glory of the Church:

“The Church is the foundation of virtue and the school of spiritual life.  Just cross its threshold at any time, and immediately you forget daily cares. Pass inside, and a spiritual ray will surround your soul. This stillness causes awe and teaches the Christian life.  It raises up your train of thought and doesn’t allow you to remember present things.  It transports you from earth to Heaven.  And if the gain is so great when a worship service is not even taking place, just think, when the Liturgy is performed — and the prophets teach, the Apostles preach the Gospel, Christ is among believers, God the Father accepts the performed sacrifice, and the Holy Spirit grants His own rejoicing — what great benefit floods those who have attended church as they leave the church.

“The joy of anyone who rejoices is preserved in the Church.  The gladness of the embittered, the rejoicing of the saddened, the refreshment of the tortured, the comfort of the tired, all are found in the Church.  Because Christ says, ‘Come to me, all who are tired and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ [Matthew 11:28].  What is more longed for than [to hear] this Voice?  What sweeter than this invitation?  The Lord is calling you to a Banquet when He invites you to church. He urges you to be comforted from toils and He transports you to a place of comfort from pain, because He lightens you from the burden of sins. He heals distress with spiritual enjoyment, and sadness with joy.”

Saint John was not called Chrysostom — the “Golden-mouthed” — for nothing!  He does not admonish his flock in this homily to give up on the games and other forms of entertainment; but he surely makes it clear that there is no comparison between the two.  And that, therefore, our desire and commitment cannot be so misplaced to somehow put the two on the same level of attraction.  The perfectly legitimate desire to “fit in” with one’s neighbors and participate in socially popular events must be balanced by an awareness of not being fully of the world once one is baptized into the Church.

Bearing all of that in mind, if I were to write in the spirit of Saint John and try to apply his approach to parish life in the contemporary world, I would make the following pastoral “suggestions” based on the recent Super Bowl — or for that matter, any existing commitment we might have to the world of professional sports/entertainment.

If you watched the Super Bowl from its opening kick-off to the end of the game, but if you chronically arrive late for the opening doxology of “Blessed is the Kingdom” at the Liturgy, then it may be time to show the same commitment to the Liturgy and arrive at the beginning.  That opening doxology opens us up to a reality hardly matched by an opening kick-off.

If you spent time watching all of the pre-game hype and analysis, all meant to prepare you for the game, but if you have never given much thought to arriving before the Liturgy for the reading of the Hours; then I would suggest arriving in church before the actual Liturgy begins in time for the pre-Eucharist chanting of those very Hours — a mere 20 minutes.  This way you are able to settle in and calm down a bit in preparation for the Liturgy that will shortly unfold in all of its majesty.

If you have been engaged in some of the (endless) post-game analysis since yesterday; or watched “highlights” of the game, or recall some of the more significant and game-changing plays of the game, but if you struggle by mid-week to remember what the Gospel was at last Sunday’s Liturgy, then I would suggest engaging in some post-Liturgy analysis of the Gospel that you heard on any given Sunday with  family and/or friends (or within your own mind and heart). There are also the many existing commentaries from the Church Fathers or contemporary Orthodox thinkers.  Such “analysis” can eventually become genuine meditation of even contemplation.

Let Us Be Pro-Life, for the Life of the World

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)​ and Chairman of the Board of our seminary, led the Orthodox Christian delegation in the 45th March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Friday, January 19, 2018. Seminarians, faculty, and administration from St. Vladimir’s Seminary joined him and Orthodox Christians from all jurisdictions around the country in the annual March—including members of our pro-life, on-campus Student Interest Group, the St. Ambrose Society​. 

Metropolitan Tikhon also offered the following prayer at the pre-March program. He was joined on stage by His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York.

45th Annual March for Life, Washington, D.C., January 19, 2018

I don’t come here to represent an ideology or to put forth a new thought.
I am not here to disclose a new insight or to speak for others.
I don’t even come here to speak for myself.
I come here to speak out the Gospel, to speak for the One who died “for the life of the world.”
In this phrase I see the summary of all that our communion today is about.

SB_Met Tikhon_Opening PrayerAnd so, together with my brothers from the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition, I ask you to join me in offering a prayer to the One who died, not for the lives of the world, but for the life of it.

O Lord Jesus Christ, we know that all things and all people of all times share a kinship, a oneness that even surpasses our understanding. They all have one life and one life only, flowing through everything that breathes and everything that exists. When You came into the world, You did not just become human, but You also took on this one life and clothed Yourself with it, making it Your seamless tunic.

As life is one, all violence of any kind is of the same essence, the tearing of the one tunic. The tearing of the tunic will take many forms: abortion, execution, war, racism, genocide, oppression, slavery, hatred of any kind, but the essence of all is one and the same. All such acts are only symptoms of one and the same illness, “the sin of the world,” of which we are all part, which is self-love.

It is tempting to place blame for death only on some, but to be pro-life means to understand that violence is not the sin of some, but of all, that all violence of all time is the sin of all.

The truth is that every human being is Your image and everyone’s life finds infinite value in You, regardless of one’s sins.

Lord, You show us that life has only one source and only one victory: self-sacrificial love. Help us to be self-sacrificial love for all, and we will conquer death. As the great Syrian saint, St Isaac said:

Be persecuted, but persecute not.
Be crucified, but crucify not.
Be wronged, but wrong not.
Be slandered, but slander not.
Have clemency, not zeal, with respect to evil.
Lay hold of goodness, not justice.
Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life, and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching.
Rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep: for this is the sign of limpid purity. Suffer with the sick, and mourn with sinners; with those who repent, rejoice. . .
Be a partaker in the sufferings of all men, but keep your body distant from all. Rebuke no man, revile no man, not even those who live very wickedly.
Spread your cloak over the man who is falling and cover him.

My Brothers and Sisters,

Let us be pro-life and thus not oppose Christ’s dying for the life of the whole world.

Let us be pro-life and be against anything that injures life, against any violence, under any circumstances.

Let us be pro-life and understand the kinship of all people and even of all other creatures and all things.

Let us be pro-life and thus become unable to endure the injury done to any creature.

May we be all this to the glory of our Almighty God, revealed in Trinity at the river Jordan, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. AMEN.