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.


OPENING PRAYER
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.

Sanctity of Life Sunday 2018

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)​ and Chairman of the Board of our seminary, ​will lead 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 will be joining 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 has been asked to offer the prayer at the pre-March program and will be joined on stage by His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York.
We are re-printing here from the Orthodox Church in America’s website His Beatitude’s message for “Sanctity of Life Sunday,” which will be observed January 21, 2018, in OCA parishes and in other Orthodox Christian jurisdictions throughout the U.S.

Archpastoral Message of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon

To the honorable Clergy, venerable Monastics, and pious Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America,

My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ:

From the moment they were born, both Moses and our Lord Jesus Christ faced great danger: as infants someone wanted each of them dead. Moses’s life was saved because the Hebrew midwives feared God more than Pharaoh, so they refused to follow the order to kill the newborn males (Ex. 1:17). And our Savior’s life was spared because of angelic intervention (Mt. 2:13).

2018-0118-theotokos-nourisher-lifeBut the Holy Innocents were not spared. Herod’s lust for power, or rather his deep-seated insecurity, led to the massacre of a multitude of small children, and the bitter weeping of their inconsolable mothers. We sing of this at the Ninth Royal Hour on Christmas Eve: “Mothers were bereft of their infants, and by an untimely death their babes were bitterly harvested. Breasts grew dry and sources of milk were stopped. Great was this calamity!”

The root of sin and specifically of violence toward our fellow human being has not changed since those times. It has always been our passions: anger, fear, judgment, despair, jealousy, pride, vanity, to name only a few. Moreover, the Fathers of our Church have always taught that the nature of all passions is one and the same: love of the self. This is, in the words of our Lord, “not to think the things of God, but those of man” (Mt. 16:23), or in other words not to think as God does, but as people do. We learn from the Apostle Paul how God thinks. He does not think of His divinity as a thing to hold onto, but empties Himself taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7). The mind of God is not only not to kill, but to give life to the world through His death (John 6:33, 51).

Locking ourselves within our own minds and setting ourselves as the standard of life, not only do we not see God for what He is, but we don’t see our fellow human beings for what they are. They become objects of our ideas and plans, props in our own life narratives, subjects of our own desires. We hurt others in so many ways just to make them fit us better. The calamities we inflict on each other are not different in nature since the beginning of time, they are only greater. Today we have means to injure others on extraordinarily larger scales. We have the means to hurt others all the way on the other side of the planet with the typing of 280 characters. We have means to execute the condemned by the thousands. We have means to destroy the enemy by the hundreds of thousands. Finally, we have means to kill the unborn by the millions and billions. The only difference between us and the sinners of ancient times is that we have greater means for putting ourselves first and imposing ourselves on others.

Yet, the scariest of all things is not even the scale of our means of violence. Rather it is the fact that our human mind has devolved in its own universe to the point of finding justification for all these terrible violences. At times it even seems that we are drawing near to justifying anything. Human law, established firmly in “the things of men” and not in those of God, follows suit. So many wars have been legal. So many executions have been legal. So many genocides—legal. Christ’s own crucifixion—legal. So much violence has been done in the name of the law and of the good of the human being.

In front of this terrible reality some of us will be drawn to prayer. Others will be drawn to helping all the victims of this terrible violence. Others will be drawn to changing the law. But in front of all of us, regardless of our inclinations, is put forth the only Way and the only conquering of death and victory of life—Christ, the one who “died for the life of the world” (John 6:51). There is a great mystery hidden in this truth, because Christ died for the life of the world at the hands of the world. This is how St. John Chrysostom puts it:

Tell me, what is the goal of the Gospel of grace? Why the revelation of the Son of God in the flesh? So that we bite and devour each other?

…Christ didn’t die only for friends or for His own, but also for His enemies, for tyrants, for impostors, for those who hated and crucified Him…

Throw the net of love, not so that the lame will fall, but rather that he be healed… and thus having searched the hidden depths, pull out from the chasm of perdition the one drowned by his thoughts…

Do not hate! Do not turn away! Do not persecute! Rather, show him pure and true love.

And how Christ died “for the life of the world” at the hands of the world clarifies for us the most crucial thing, namely that life has only one source and only one victory: selfless or self-sacrificial love. Let us be selfless love for all and we—in the one who is Love and Life itself—will conquer death:

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. (St. Isaac of Syria)

May the world see our love, receive it from our own cross, and fill itself with life in it!

With love in Christ,

+ Tikhon
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

New Year’s Resolution: A Chance to Pray, to Love, and to Be a Helper

By Sarah Byrne-Martelli, Seminarian

Sarah Byrne-Martelli, BCC, was Board Certified with the Association of Professional Chaplains in 2004. She is a Chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital and is endorsed by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School and currently is a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

She wrote the following essay for a broad audience (Orthodox and non-Orthodox!) as part of an assignment for her D.Min. class, “Advanced Preaching and Communications.”

Sarah also co-hosts a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio called, “The Wounded Healer.” Sarah, her husband, Peter, and their son, Rafael, are members of St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? We hear these questions a lot, and wonder how to make meaning of this. Do we deserve the good things, the bad things? Where is God in all of this? If we do good things, and live a decent life, not hurting anyone, it seems like we should have some guarantee that life will be good. But a quick glance around shows us that this is not the case.

list of resolutions on blackboard with three blank, numbered sticky notes
photo: moneysmart.com

We all know the stories…. Our sweet, elderly neighbor, who goes to Mass every day, had a stroke and is in the hospital. Your boss is a complete jerk, who disrespects people at every turn, and yet he gets promotions and accolades while you get nothing. My friend’s young wife is dying of cancer and they have a six month-old baby. And so on and so on…. And after a while, it’s too much to bear: bad things happening to good people, and good people suffering, all the time.

Some people respond by rationalizing these questions from a rigid religious perspective. There is this idea that God controls literally everything, from whom you marry, to your job offers, and your daily experiences. It’s like God is a micromanager. God helps you find your keys, and grants you that sweet parking spot you got at the supermarket. It’s related to the old “everything happens for a reason” line that people love to say, to reassure themselves. If I had been standing a foot to the left, that tree would have fallen right on me and I would have died. Everything happens for a reason! Hashtag #blessed. Well, that’s good for you, but what about the man it did fall on? What was the reason for that? Was that guy bad? Are you good? Was he good? What does that even mean? It makes you want to give up.

Perhaps more appealing is the idea that God is not involved at all, and we are the authors of our own destiny. You’ve probably heard of bestsellers like “The Secret,” with its “law of attraction.” Simply put, the law of attraction states that if you put out positive energy into the universe, you will receive it back. If you put out negative energy, you will receive it back. It’s like your mind is an existential magnet. If you manifest your vision, you deserve all the good you get. That sounds really appealing…until something bad happens. What’s the reason? What about the wonderful person who manifests positive energy, yet gets cancer? Did she deserve it? Is she to blame?

These ways of thinking are at best internally inconsistent, and at worst incredibly hurtful. If you have a tragedy, and someone responds with, “Well…everything happens for a reason!” or “You must not have manifested enough positive energy,” you know it feels like a straight punch to the gut.

And you have full permission to reject these responses. The good news is there is a better way to face the troublesome fact that seemingly bad things do happen to seemingly good people.

SB_Byrne-Martelli.JPG
Chaplain Sarah Byrne-Martelli, BCC

As you know, my tradition is Orthodox Christian. Reductive responses and cheery slogans don’t resonate with the rich theology of the Church. We don’t have this idea that God is a creepy puppeteer, orchestrating everything. God is not a cosmic babysitter, or a petty micromanager. If He were, I wouldn’t want to believe in Him either!

And we’re also not just sending and receiving energy into the cosmos, like rechargeable batteries. It doesn’t work that way.

I’ll start with an important premise. God is good. Everything and everyone who God created is good. Everyone. Yes, even those people who seem “bad.” We are all made in God’s image. And this God created us to be free. Real love doesn’t force anyone to do anything. We can do whatever we want.

But as humans, we tend to do things in a way that prioritizes our own pride, our own needs, our own selfish ways. This allows the force of evil—a twisting of the good—to take hold in people. This is what it means to live in a fallen world: that the second humanity had a chance to do something selfish, they did—cue Adam, Eve, and the apple. It took them about one second to mess with the freedom that God gave them. With this freedom came sin, and death, and suffering, all inherited, in a sense, from our ancestors. With this freedom comes a world of struggle and tragedy.

Suffering comes as a result of this inheritance. But that’s not the end of the story.

God responds to suffering in the person of Jesus, who was real, who lived and saw everything that was going on. Jesus walked and talked and knew what it was to be human. He responded to the suffering He encountered with compassion and clarity. He calmly turned things upside down. Instead of condemning an adulterous woman, He called the crowd to examine their own failures. He touched the supposedly “unclean;” He welcomed the noisy children; He taught that every suffering person is our neighbor. Jesus loved the poor and ate meals with sinners. Every human experience, every tragedy, every joy and grief—all are known to Jesus.

It can seem like the end of everything when a tragedy happens to someone we love. We ask, Why? We ask, Do I deserve this? Those are good questions, and Jesus himself asked questions like this, as He approached His own death. Again, He gets it, because He was fully human. He faced the pain of suffering, betrayal, and death head-on, with compassion, forgiveness, and love.

Life is not just about doing good works or having an impressive faith so nothing bad happens to you. It is not about judging others or making assumptions about another person’s “energy.” It’s about a path of holiness that constantly seeks peace and radical kindness to ourselves and others. It’s about approaching suffering with gentleness and introspection, not as if we deserve it or don’t deserve it. It’s not about good people and bad people and good things and bad things. It’s about seeking the only truly good thing: aligning ourselves with the heart of God, the love of God in us and around us. It is a daily choice—a choice that God gives us.

Well, then, you say, why does God need us to choose it? If God is so powerful, then why doesn’t God just do something?

Well, God has already done everything. God has done everything in the person of Jesus. And even Jesus was not immune to tragic feelings. He cried with compassion for his friend Lazarus who died. Jesus shows us so tangibly what God is like. We can do the things that He did.

When a tragedy happens, we hear that wonderful quote of Mr. Fred Rogers, telling us to look for the helpers. Mr. Rogers was a minister, you know, and his faith was quietly woven throughout his work. He said, look for the helpers. The helpers are choosing love, kindness, compassion. This is where we see God, when bad things happen. When we look for the helpers, we see that God is not distant, God is not gone. God is alive among us. And in moments when we don’t see any helpers, then perhaps the helper is already close by. Perhaps we are the helpers, the ones called to love someone in need.

The ultimate fear—that life has no meaning and tragedy is unavoidable—is conquered by a love that fills and surrounds everything that exists. That’s what I mean when I say that God has done everything, and He is never far away.

Now of course, sometimes we still grieve, we still fear, we still shake our fists at the sky. We don’t just magically bask in God’s glory and act perfectly. Life can be incredibly sad, and overwhelming, and heartbreaking. I have spent countless hours with people in the midst of traumatic loss. I have witnessed a mother and father cradling their stillborn twin babies. I have witnessed my best friend going through a terrible divorce. I have witnessed the shock of a new diagnosis, the shock of sudden loss, the shock of a heart attack. It is honestly a mystery. We don’t know why. But faith helps us abide and be brave. Faith turns to God in the shock, in the sadness, in the heartbreak. Faith gives thanks for the helpers and empowers us to help, in love and in faith.

The grief we feel is a cue in our hearts that this is not right, that death cannot be the end. Grief is borne out of love, and this love cannot be overcome. And honestly, sometimes there are no words. Sometimes silence is the most loving response.

On the cross, with His last breath, Jesus said, “It is finished,” and was silent. “It is finished” doesn’t mean it’s over or it’s done. “It is finished” means it is complete. Even the final tragedy— death—was conquered by the love that never ends. God does everything that can possibly be done. It is God’s complete way of saying: My children, I love you, and I’m here with you.

The question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” isn’t the question we should keep asking. Instead, we must bravely ask: How can I be a helper? We must say, God is good, and life is messy, and God has redeemed it all. We must say, Lord have mercy. We must say: Help me understand, help me love.

Does everything happen for a reason? Yes, but it’s not the reason you think. It’s not because you deserve one thing, and someone else deserves something else. The reason is that everything in life—loss, joy, grief, gratitude, everything—is a chance to pray and a chance to love. It’s a chance to seek the helper, to be the helper, and to pray, cry, and give thanks. Helping others, we witness true goodness, and we share this goodness with a world that so desperately needs it.

Archpastoral Message on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ 2017

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, Chair of the Board & Spiritual Head of St. Vladimir’s Seminary


Christ is born! Glorify Him!

My beloved Brethren and Blessed Children in the Lord,

As we come to the end of the civil year, we reflect back on a period in which tragedy, acts of terrorism, shootings in public spaces, political confusion, and sexual misconduct allegations dominate the news. The darkness which enshrouds the world adds to the burden of our personal and family struggles: addictions, estrangement, divorce, and all manner of conflict wrought by human passions. We might be tempted to wonder how love could have so definitively fled from the hearts of human beings.

SB_Archpastoral Message_Image_Nativity_2017The feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ is a reminder to all of us that “heaven and earth today make glad prophetically” and angels and men “keep spiritual feast, for God, born of a woman, has appeared in the flesh to those that sit in darkness and shadow.” The light that we receive today is not merely a physical light that pierces the gloom which surrounds us, but rather a transfiguring light that both reveals God’s love for us and inspires us to grow in our love for God.

There is no philosophy or ideology that can overcome the irrationality of the world. It is only the transfiguring light of Christ—His divine and sacrificial love—that can accomplish this. It is only through love that we can, with the animals in the manger, “accept Him who by His Word has loosed us dwellers on earth from acts that are against reason.” When we despair at the tragedies in the world and in our lives, let us remember that it is precisely in the midst of such darkness that the Word of God chose to be incarnate.

Archimandrite Zacharias suggests that “when we are confronted by the ruins of human love and find ourselves completely broken, then two solutions can be given: either we turn to God with our pain, so that God enters our life and renews us, or we continue to be deceived by our human plans and slide from one tragedy and barrenness of soul to another, hoping that one day we will find perfection.”

The world longs for authentic love but seems to remain mired in the global tragedies that we witness every day. In our horizontal and human relations with one another, what is missing is God Himself, a third and divine-human Person to purify and heal our imperfect and broken relationships. Whether it be husband and wife, brother and sister, or larger communities, true love and abiding peace can only be found through our communion with God.

In our Orthodox context, this takes place through the Divine Liturgy and through our efforts to nurture the sacrificial love of God in our own hearts. “Paradise begins on earth through love for God and love for our fellows. In this lies the entire wealth of eternal life, for man has been created to give eternal glory to God. His delight is to return this glory to His image, man, who then returns greater glory to his Creator.”

Today’s feast is a reminder that it is through this cycle of glorification and love between God and man that we find our true fulfillment. May the new-born Christ grant us the courage to keep His love in our hearts, to connect with our fellows through prayer, sacrifice, and humility, and to remember that, no matter the degree of our own brokenness or the brokenness of the world, Christ has come to give us hope for renewal, “for what He was, He has remained, true God: and what He was not, He has taken upon Himself, becoming man through love for mankind.”

With love in the New-Born Christ,

+ Tikhon
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada