It was Easter morning during my first year at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and I stood at the altar of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey, wearing subdeacon vestments, listening to our bishop read the gospel of St. Mark. In the traditional Syriac Orthodox melody, he chanted:
And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16.5-6).
I was overwhelmed by these words. He is risen, he is not here! Silently, I began to weep. The sense of awe that accompanied this moment was soon replaced with embarrassment, as I saw our bishop looking right at me as tears dripped off my chin. I shuffled off to find a tissue.
Why did tears come to me at such a moment? Certainly, the feast of our Lord’s resurrection holds great power. But thinking back on all that had occurred over my first year at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I realized that what I experienced on that day was the result of accumulation. The Seminary prescribes for its students a life focused on seeking the Lord, and such a life is a struggle against the outside world. This Christ-centered focus is supported by chapel services, classes, community service, fasts, confession, and for a married student such as myself, family life. Yet on any given day, I would often wonder if such a routine was bearing any fruit. On this Easter day, I received an answer. Each day lived trying to fix our gaze on our Lord has a great benefit. It is a benefit that is usually unseen from day to day, but which accumulates slowly over time.
St. John Climacus addresses the unseen character of the spiritual life. He writes:
After a long spell of prayer, do not say that nothing has been gained, for you have already achieved something. For after all, what higher good is there than to cling to the Lord, to persevere in unceasing union with him? (Ladder of Divine Ascent, 28.32)
Life at seminary, and the life of every Orthodox Christian, is an effort to cling to the Lord each day. My time at St. Vladimir’s, particularly on that Easter morning, has taught me that, though we may not perceive any immediate changes as we try to live according to Church teaching, each day of effort matters. The Lord sees our labor and our constant yearning for Him, and slowly changes us by His grace.
The tears granted to me on Easter were a gift, showing me that, to some small and humble measure, the truth of the resurrection had established some root in my heart. Even so, the reality is that I am still a spiritual beginner, returning often to ego and self-will instead of casting myself completely upon the Lord. Yet, as my time here at seminary draws to an end, I will leave as a spiritual beginner, yet one who knows what I must do with the remainder of the earthly life that God gives me. I must work, seeking Him every day, and I pray that by His grace the following words will continue to descend into my heart, filling it through and through:
He is risen, he is not here!
Thomas Totonchy is a third-year Master of Divinity student from the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. He is from Portland, Oregon, where his father helped to establish the St. Ignatius of Antioch parish. There he served as a subdeacon and was involved in youth ministry before coming to New York for seminary with his wife Jennifer, who works at the Weill Cornell Medical College. In the summer of 2015, they welcomed their daughter Josephine into the world. After seminary, Thomas hopes to continue to serve the Church as a youth minister, and if it be God’s will, as a priest.
(Photos: Leanne Parrott Photography)