Category Archives: Reflection

July: A “month-long spiritual desert”

By Alumnus Archpriest Steven Kostoff (Master of Divinity ’81), pastor of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Orthodox Church, in Norwood, Ohio

SYNAXIS_Desert_JourneyUnless we find ourselves on an exciting vacation somewhere far from home, it seems that nothing can conceivably be more uneventful than a Monday morning in mid-July.

The only “variety” offered seems to be found in the weather: Will it rain or will the sun shine? Will the blistering heat continue, or will we feel some relief? At this point in the summer, we may have already been on vacation—which means that there isn’t much to look forward to—or we are awaiting an upcoming trip that at least fills us with some sense of anticipation and “escape.” (All of which poses a further question: are our carefully-planned vacations—into which we invest so much time, energy, money, and even hope—always as rewarding, relaxing, and renewing as anticipated? I suppose that can only be assessed once we have returned—hopefully as intact as when we departed!)

Adding to our spiritual ennui is, admittedly, the fact that July is the most uneventful month of the year liturgically: no major fasts or feasts occur during this month. With vacationing parishioners, there can be a noticeable drop in church attendance. There may also be certain signs of “spiritual laziness” setting in (induced, perhaps, in part by the haziness of the weather) leading to that condition of spiritual torpor known in our spiritual literature as acedia.

July, therefore, is a month-long stretch of spiritual desert, for we celebrated the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul at the end of June and await the major Feasts of the Transfiguration and the Dormition in August, within the context of the two-week fast from August 1–14. Basically, there is “only” the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and the commemoration of a few well-known saints throughout the month.

Of course, we never want to find ourselves saying that there is “only” the Liturgy on Sunday mornings. The word “only” is hopelessly inadequate when applied to the Lord’s Day celebration of the Eucharist!

“Only” implies “uneventful, yet every Liturgy is the actualization of the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and our participation in that mystery: “Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven….” And every Liturgy is simultaneously the actualization of the Pentecostal mystery of the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit: “Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered….”

At every Liturgy we proclaim and bless the presence and power of the kingdom of heaven. We are praying to and praising the Holy Trinity together with the angels and the saints. We are in direct communion with God and one another in the Liturgy. This means that every Liturgy is “eventful” in a manner that we can barely comprehend!

If, indeed, the summer proves to be something of a spiritual drought, then we can only thank God for the weekly liturgical cycle that begins and culminates with the Divine Liturgy on the Lord’s Day so that we can recover and renew our genuine humanity that has been created, redeemed, and transformed “in Christ.”

To speak of our life “in Christ” on the communal level, we believe that at every Liturgy we anticipate the messianic banquet, where and when “many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8.11). The heavenly manna, or the “Bread from heaven” that we receive by the grace of God, strengthens us in the somewhat outward and inward “desert-like” conditions of the world around or within us.

On a more interior level, we may one day make the wonderful discovery that we need not travel far away geographically in order to embark upon a life-transforming journey. In the Prologue to his book The Orthodox Way, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware relates the following anecdote.

One of the best known of the Desert Fathers of the fourth-century Egypt, Saint Sarapion the Sidonite, travelled once on pilgrimage to Rome. Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lives always in one small room, never going out. Skeptical about her way of life—for he was himself a great wanderer—Sarapion called on her and asked: “Why are you sitting here?” To this she replied: “I am not sitting, I am on a journey.”

Admittedly, this will not work well with children! But at one point in our lives, we need desperately to make that discovery of our interior depths wherein we find a point of stillness that will further still our excessive restlessness that endlessly pushes us “outward” rather than “inward.” In one of my other favorite sentences in The Orthodox Way, Metropolitan Kallistos puts it this way: “We are on a journey through the inward space of the heart, a journey not measured by the hours of our watch or the days of the calendar, for it is a journey out of time into eternity.”

“Vacations” are one thing, and “journeys” (or pilgrimages) another. The packaging and planning of the former make them much more predictable that the limitless possibilities of the latter. So, as we plan our outward vacations by plane or car, we need make provisions for the interior journeys into the greater space of our hearts through “faith, hope, and love,” as well as through the practices of prayer and fasting, so as to remain attentive to the “still voice of God” that gives direction and meaning to our lives. Be that as it may, we pray that God will bless us on both forms of our travels!

Whatever the state of our journey, the following passage from the Scriptures may inspire us to see beyond the tedium that leads to the forgetfulness of God: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed” (Heb 12.12–13).

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Through the Cross, Joy

Let us commend ourselves…
The first few days after the miscarriage were foggy and confusing. We were devastated. Afraid. Empty. We weren’t so much angry with God as numb. We shut down and withdrew. Why did we have to let go of the child we never met? Our emotional turmoil mirrored the winter weather: swirling snow shut everything down, and we were shut inside with our grief.

On the third day, God gave us a great gift to begin the slow process of healing. The blizzard dissipated, leaving everything hushed by a serene blanket of white snow. With everyone else inside to enjoy the day off, cozy with family before their fireplaces, the world outside remained quiet and pure, unspoiled. A new beginning. We alone emerged, tentatively, into that peaceful silence; tentatively, we entrusted part of our broken selves back to the Creator.

The next place we felt comfortable was in church, the Saturday night Vigil. We didn’t have to make meaningless small talk or look anyone in the eye. Others prayed by candlelight; we simply stood, holding onto the stillness from the previous day, letting the prayers wash over us. Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee. The prayers in preparation for Sunday, the day of resurrection ­­already, but not yet. For Thy Name’s sake have I waited for Thee. We sat in the hushed service together, keeping watch before the icon of St. Anna the Prophetess, who is practiced at receiving children. We decided to commend our lost child to her, and to remember her with the same name. From the morning watch until night, let Israel hope in the Lord. Perhaps we could relearn how to commend ourselves to Christ, too.

Let us commend each other…
The close community at St. Vladimir’s carried us. Two priests came to see us shortly after it happened. They listened, they prayed; they assured us we could always call on them. They were kind and wise in their brevity. Perhaps one of the best lessons in the art of pastoral care.

The best gift our friends gave us at first was space. The second best was food. The evening after our loss came a knock at the door: no one there, just a bag of groceries and warm comfort food. And a note: We’ve been there; we’re here for you. Two of our closest friends. First there was a wave of guilt—how had we not known and acknowledged their pain? Then a stronger feeling, like a firm embrace: they loved us anyway, and there was nothing we could do about it.

We were not prepared for the gentle compassion we received. No one smothered us, but somehow, discretely, we were assured of everyone’s support. Family sent cards. A baby blanket in memoriam. We were even less prepared for the number of friends who had also miscarried. Obadiah. Innocent. Anna. They all had names, icons in the family prayer corner. How had we never noticed? Another couple of our closest friends invited us in. They had been there, too. You’ll never forget her. It still hits us unexpectedly after three years. Tears. Hugs. A deep bond that only comes with vulnerability and shared experience. Only in reflecting back do we see how we made it through.

With every act of kindness toward us, every tear shed with us, every prayer said secretly for us: our friends and family commended us to Christ when we were too lost and lethargic to know where to turn.

Let us commend all our life unto Christ our God.
Slowly the pain dulled, the sobs came less frequently, and we returned to life as usual. We mercifully receded from the spotlight. Nothing would ever be the same, but neither did it have to remain bleak. There were new pains, new fears, new questions; but we were finding a new resilience, and new wisdom. God had not left us during the most painful time of our lives, and in fact, we had never been closer to or more loved by our friends. As we practiced ­­haltingly ­­ giving every thorny part of our life over to God, we found that the pain was not to be avoided or merely endured, but could actually be cultivated into the most precious fruit­bearing tree. Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden; Behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Enter again into paradise.

After forty days of mourning, of lamentation, of the cold beginning of a New York spring—Pascha. In spite of ourselves, we dove into the celebration. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Still not yet, not fully. But it felt closer; more certain. We grew to believe with more zeal than ever before. The child that never saw the light of day—her story did not, in fact, end before it began. We hope to meet her one day.

After forty days of paschal joy, of the hope of resurrection and reunion, of sunny days and blooming flowers, we had a memorial service and found out we were pregnant again. At the beginning of this year, our son was born, healthy and happy, by the grace of God. He cannot replace Anna, or erase the scar from our hearts; neither will he be overshadowed by her. Rather, he will grow up under the watchful protection of the Prophetess Anna and the Wonderworker Nicholas. And standing together in our prayer corner, before their icons and by their prayers, we three together will learn to commend ourselves, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.

cannons

Andrew, Melissa, and Nicholas Cannon live at St. Vladimir’s, where Andrew is in his final semester of his studies in the Master of Arts program.

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Changed by His grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pascha2

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

He is risen, he is not here!


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

(Photos: Leanne Parrott Photography)

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God does not need words

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

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

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

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

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, save.

Lord, help me.

God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

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

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

 

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

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The moment we were first called

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

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

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

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

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

639px-Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_036

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

What were we seeking when we were first called?

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

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

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

But it is a LONG path.

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

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

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

Duccio carrying of the cross

The carrying of the cross. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

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

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

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

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

But that one small spark is all it takes.

pentecost

Pentecost. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

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

At that moment Andrew began to understood his calling.

Christ

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

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

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

Andrew

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

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

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

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Jesus will rise here also

with abpDuring Holy Week and Bright Week, 2015, St. Vladimir’s seminarians Edward Hunter, Lijin Raju, and I had the unbelievable opportunity to travel to Kenya as part of a mission trip sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), and led by Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi. As the result of a generous grant, the three of us were able to travel to Kenya without any expenses of our own. The trip was one that we will never forget, as it has left an imprint on all three of our hearts.

Our first week in Kenya was spent in Nairobi at the Orthodox seminary, which is run by His Eminence Archbishop Makarios of Kenya. The entire time we were there, the staff and students were exceptionally hospitable and His Eminence always went out of his way to ensure that we were taken care of. One of the days, Archimandrite Philip Mugadizi (SVOTS ‘03), told us about the work Archbishop Makarios has done as well as what he hopes to accomplish in the future.

12052567_886952414717873_1722409182556908033_oWe participated with our brother seminarians in the Holy Week services, which the priests served using a mix of English, Greek, and Swahili. On Great and Holy Friday, after we processed with the tomb of Christ through the impoverished neighborhood of Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world, Archbishop Makarios professed, “Jesus has been crucified. But He will rise on the third day. Even if you are in the poorest place, Jesus will rise here also.”

My time at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary worshipping the same Lord and celebrating the same Pascha showed me that the God we all worship is the same one—the same Christ that we all need in order for salvation, the same Christ who has called each of us, as seminarians, to serve in His One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.

As part of our #GivingTuesday 2015 Campaign, St. Vladimir’s Seminary will be donating 10% of whatever money we raise on December 1 to help build up the theological library of Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary.

Shawn Thomas is a third-year seminarian in the Master of Divinity program. He is from Chicago, IL, and his home parish is St. Peter’s Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. Take a look at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary, thanks to photos from Fr. Philip Mugadizi and Shawn. You can read about the second week of Shawn’s trip to Kenya here.

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Unity in Diversity: The Opportunities and the Challenges

“Unity in Diversity.” This expression speaks about a balance between wholeness and difference, between integrity and variety. The idea is sometimes rooted in our teaching about the Holy Trinity: God is a unity, one God, in a diversity of persons, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Unity in diversity can also suggest something very important to us, as human beings, but specifically as Orthodox Christians. Because it can illustrate that things or people don’t have to look, walk, talk, and think exactly alike in order to be in union with each other.

Not all differences can be held together. Some differences between us really do divide us. Thinking about Orthodoxy, if someone were to say that Jesus Christ is not divine, or that he’s not human, that person would be at odds with the Orthodox Christian faith, and therefore divided from it. But not all differences divide. In fact, some differences make for an even deeper unity.

12094730_878264255586689_8968515344177057853_oThis sounds surprising, but anyone in a reasonably healthy marriage knows this instinctively: two people don’t have to become identical to each other in order to be in union with each other. In fact, it is often precisely the differences that make their union not only more interesting, but also more real, more substantial. We don’t, as a rule, marry mirror-images of ourselves.

Unity and diversity play themselves out within any human society, grouping, or family. And they have long been applied to the unity and diversity that characterize the Church. St Paul gives us the image of the Church as a body, with members that are different and interdependent (see especially 1 Cor. 12). From its apostolic beginnings, then, the Church has always been thought of as a community of diverse members with diverse gifts, and the diversity of the saints continues to testify to how differently the same Christian faith and life may be expressed in this world.

The Church’s diversity-in-unity was also articulated in a striking way in the second century. In the midst of a heated crisis in the Church concerning the date on which Easter should be celebrated, St Irenaeus of Lyons considered the various practices and dates and said: “The difference in practice confirms the unity in faith.” Yes, you read that correctly. The differences confirm the unity. They testify to it. They strengthen it. This pronouncement challenges our logic: wouldn’t you have thought that it’s unity in practice that confirms unity in faith? Well that can happen too. But what is being said here is also true, and deeply important: the very fact that we can embody diversity, yet agree in the matters of the greatest significance, confirms and deepens our unity. It means that our unity doesn’t depend on our being identical, or completely undifferentiated. In short, unity is not uniformity.

12139982_878265065586608_8381657141316611522_oSt Irenaeus’s saying confirms the principle of “unity in diversity,” or perhaps “diversity in unity.” Unity in the most important sense, unity concerning the things that really matter, is not threatened but enriched by diversity. Fr St Irenaeus, the different dates of the Paschal celebration did not threaten but even enriched what really mattered, namely the fact and the life-giving content of the Lord’s Pascha itself.

But with all its enriching potential, the interplay of unity and diversity also poses two serious challenges:

  • Unity is not uniformity, but the challenge is to identify and maintain coherence and unity within a diverse body. In the Church, that means the challenge of holding together diverse views, showing where they cohere—and also where they do not.
  • The other challenge is to recognize and even promote a genuine diversity, to show people that being “Orthodox” doesn’t necessarily mean doing and thinking in exactly the same way. If we do this right, we will be helping people understand what being “Orthodox” really consists in.

Both of these challenges require us to identify what is the unchangeable core of our faith and life, those things that cannot be denied or distorted without the loss of our unity. Having identified that core, it becomes possible to identify both the possibilities and the limits of diversity. For example, we can be on different calendars and be one Church. We can hold different teachings about “toll houses” and be one Church. We can  even believe different things about how and when the world came into being (7,000 years ago, or 14 billion) and be in one Church.

But we cannot be one Church if some of us are saying that Jesus was “merely a very great man,” or that “Jesus was divine, but only appeared to be human.” It would also be hard to imagine being in the same Orthodox Church if some of us were to teach that “human personhood only begins at birth, and that therefore abortion is only the loss of a mass of cells.” These would be genuine divisions of teaching or practice, not just “a healthy diversity of expression.”

The examples I just gave are pretty obvious. But in fact, unity and diversity pose deep challenges to the Orthodox Church today, specifically in North America. We seek to be one. We seek to express our common Orthodox identity in a way that both recognizes and transcends our ethnic histories and identities. We desperately seek a unity that has, up until now, proved too challenging to be realized.

We are of course deeply concerned to be Orthodox. Sometimes we show that concern only by repeating all the formulas perfectly, getting every element of the liturgy, its vestments, architecture, and singing perfect. Nothing wrong with a loving effort to get these things right. The problem lies when we think that the substance of Orthodox faith and life resides entirely in them. If that’s what we think, whether consciously or not, then there becomes only one right way of praising God, one right Ochtoekos, one right set of vestments and hats. And one calendar on which the whole edifice is properly based. To think this way would not only be a great loss to the life of the Church, it wouldn’t be Orthodox.

St Irenaeus’s statement about, differences confirming unity, had to do with calendar issues. Can’t we go further? Aren’t there are other issues on which it is possible to do and teach things differently, provided we hold to the key elements of the apostolic faith? It is our responsibility to identify the diversities that can be held together in the unity of the Church.

One of the most significant and genuinely challenging cases in point is the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the “Oriental” Orthodox churches – the Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Indian-Syrian Churches. In recent decades an official, Church-delegated dialogue process has affirmed that “both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition.”[1] The first thing to do would be to test whether we agree with that statement. Because if we do, in other words, if the real theological unity has not been compromised by the historical terminological diversity of these church families, then we have a serious challenge before us: the challenge to live out the unity that we have identified, and admit within the life of One Church a greater diversity of liturgies, theological formulas, and saints.

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Can we, Eastern and Oriental churches, together, conceivably embody a unity in diversity, a diversity in unity? It would require many of us to rethink what “Orthodoxy” looks like. We would have to ask what is currently keeping us apart: are there still genuinely church-dividing theological issues? To what extent are we in fact living in the mere habit of separation, learned from centuries out of communion? Are there liturgical, ministerial issues yet to be resolved? Is part of what is keeping us apart simply the fear of a greater diversity—not in matters of apostolic faith and practice, but in language and “culture?” I do not wish to prejudge the answers to these questions. But we owe ourselves, each other, and our God, the most thorough, responsible, prayerful consideration of such things.  Christian love for the other, and Christian pursuit of truth wherever it is to be found, impel us to do no less.

I think then that the one great goal of all who are really and truly serving the Lord ought to be to bring back to union the churches who have at different times and in different ways divided from one another. 

— St Basil the Great, Epistle 94

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[1] Second Agreed Statement (Chambésy, Switzerland 1990), §9.

Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff is Professor Systematic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has broad interests in theology ancient and modern, but as a great fan of music and cinema he is also committed to exploring the connections between theology and popular culture, regularly offering a course on religious themes in film (one of his current courses this fall is “Religious Themes in Film”). Prof. Bouteneff co-directs the Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, an in-depth endeavor involving concerts, lectures, and publications. His most recent book is Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence, that has been hailed as “a triumph,” “a game-changer for Pärt scholarship,” and “a must-read for any listener or performer of Pärt’s music.” This reflection was first featured on the svots.edu website.

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