Category Archives: Reflection

The Mission of Orthodoxy

by Father Alexander Schmemann

On this day, December 13, 2017—(liturgically speaking, as the new day begins at sunset)—the 34th anniversary of the repose of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann [Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary 1962–1983], we recall his love for his adopted country, the United States, and his hope that the Orthodox Christian faith could grow in North America organically, with a vitality constantly renewed by the breath of the Spirit of God.

Schmemann_bannerThe following article by Father Alexander summarizes his thoughts on the still-burning issue of the intersection between faith and culture; it addresses the question of how to be “truly Orthodox yet fully American.” It was adapted from a lecture given at the 1968 National Conference of Orthodox College Students and printed in Volume III, No.4 of CONCERN, a youth-oriented magazine no longer in publication.

Father Alexander’s words are particularly penetrating this evening, as we begin the liturgical cycle for the Feast of St. Herman of Alaska, missionary to North America. Father Alexander had the privilege of reposing on that joyful feast, which holds so much meaning and promise for his hopes for Orthodoxy in America.


What is the role and task of Orthodox Christians in America? Too often we want solutions to problems which we have not formulated, progress toward a point which we have not yet defined, victories in battles in which we don’t know who is fighting whom.

The time has come to clarify the issues, to formu­late the problems we face together, to discuss the solutions and the priorities in our existence as Ortho­dox in a Western country which is our country. Are we a group of exiles? Are we a spiritual and cultural ghetto, to be perpetuated against all odds? Are we to dissolve ourselves here in what is called “the Ameri­can way of life”?  What is this American way of life?

It is my purpose to deal with the fundamental framework of these questions. In my first lecture to freshmen at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, I always use the same symbol: If you have a big library and move into a new house, you can’t use that library unless you build shelves. While it is still in boxes, you own that library, but it is of no use to you. My purpose, then, is to build the shelves and then to try to see what are the priorities of our Orthodox situation today.

It is impossible to speak about our situation in America unless we refer it to our normal and essential term of reference, the Orthodox Church. The Ortho­dox Church—whether Greek, Syrian, Serbian, Romanian, or Bulgarian—has always been both the heart and the form of an Orthodox world. Only here in the West, and for the first time in the history of Ortho­doxy, do we think of the Church in terms only of a religious institution such as diocese, parish, and so on. No one in organically Orthodox countries has ever thought of the Church as being distinct from the total­ity of life. Since the conversion of Constantine, the Church was organically related to society, culture, education, family, et cetera. There was no separation, no dichotomy. The Russian word for peasant is simply christianin, which at the beginning obviously meant Christian.

Here, then, we find the first radical difference which we have to face in America: We belong to the Orthodox Church, but we do not belong to an Ortho­dox culture.

Here, then, we find the first radical difference which we have to face in America: We belong to the Orthodox Church, but we do not belong to an Ortho­dox culture. This is the first and most important change, and unless we understand that this is not an academic proposition, but the real framework of our existence, we will not see clearly through our situa­tion. For everything in the Orthodox Church points toward a way of life; the Church is connected to all aspects of life. Yet we are deprived of this connection because, upon leaving our churches on Sunday morn­ing, we return to a culture which was not produced, shaped, or inspired by the Orthodox Church and which, therefore, in a way is deeply alien to Ortho­doxy.

CULTURES IN COLLISION

The first Orthodox immigrants in America never thought about all this, for in many ways they continued to live within an organic Orthodox “culture.” They were still living within that type of unity be­cause they belonged to what in American sociology is known as a “sub-culture.” After the liturgy, Russians or Greeks would meet in the church hall, and they would meet not only as Orthodox but also as Russians or Greeks or Bukovenians or Carpatho-Russians—and they would meet precisely in order to breathe their native culture.

At the beginning, all this was completely normal. Even today you can live in certain places as if you were not living in America. You can live there with­out knowing very much English, without any real contact with American culture. But whether we like it or not, that “immigrant” chapter of our history is coming to an end, and this is where the younger generation comes in.

Today’s Orthodox young people do not have that immigrant mentality. Orthodoxy for them is not primarily the remembrance of childhood abroad. They will not keep Orthodoxy simply because it is “the faith of their fathers.” Suppose we apply this principle to others: Then the Lutherans should keep the Lutheran faith, the Jews the Jewish faith, and finally, the son of an atheist should keep atheism because it was the “faith of his father.” If this is the criterion, religion becomes a mere cultural continuity.

But our claim is that our Church is Orthodox, or more simply, the Church, and this is a frightening claim. It implies that it is the faith for all men, for all countries, for all cultures. And unless this implication is kept in mind and heart, our claim to be the true or Orthodox Church becomes hypocrisy, and it would be more honest to call ourselves a society for the per­petuation of the cultural values of a particular geo­graphic region.

Our faith cannot be reduced to religious practices and customs alone. It claims the entire life of a human being.

Our faith cannot be reduced to religious practices and customs alone. It claims the entire life of a human being. But the culture in which we live, the “American way of life,” is something which already existed when we came here. Thus we find ourselves an Eastern Church with a total claim on our life, yet living within a Western society and a Western way of life.

The first problem can, then, be formulated very simply, although its solution is extremely difficult: How are we to combine these things? How can we live our Orthodox faith which claims the totality of our existence within a culture which also claims to shape our existence?

This is the antinomy of our situation; this is where all our difficulties are rooted. Yet unless we understand it, we will always have wrong solutions. These wrong solutions—quite popular today—follow two basic patterns.

I will call one pattern a “neurotic” Orthodoxy. It is the attitude of those who, whether they are native Orthodox or converts, decide they cannot be Ortho­dox unless they simply reject American culture, who build their spiritual home in some romantic and ideal­ized Byzantium or Russia, and who constantly curse America and decadent Western society. To them, “Western” and “American” are synonymous with “evil” and “demonic.” This extreme position gives a semblance of security. Ultimately, however, it is self-destructive. It is certainly not the attitude of Saint John, who, in the midst of a violent persecution, said so simply, “And this is the victory that has overcome the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4). And further, he said, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment” (1 John 4:18). In the attitude of some, however, Orthodoxy is transformed into an apocalyptic fear which has always led to sectarianism, hatred, and spiritual death.

The other dangerous pattern is that of an almost pathological “Americanism.” There are people who, when they hear in Church one word in Russian or Greek, react as if it were a betrayal of Christ. It is the opposite neurosis, the neurosis of those who want Orthodoxy to become American immediately.

In the first neurosis, Orthodoxy is reduced to a fanatical and negativistic sect; in the second one, “American” is falsified, for America is not at all a country which requires surrender, conformity, and the acceptance of the mainstream mentality as the “American way of life.” What makes this country great and indeed unique is precisely the openness of its culture to change.

A MESSAGE UNCHANGED

And who knows whether it may not be the real mission of Orthodoxy in America to change the American culture which has never really been chal­lenged by a different set of values? No doubt Orthodoxy has an understanding of human being, life, world, nature, et cetera, radically different from those prevailing in American culture, but this difference itself is a chal­lenge for Orthodoxy rather than a justification for withdrawal, negativism, and fear. To avoid the two extremes, to be truly Orthodox yet fully American, seems to be the only real Orthodox tradition. How and where do we then begin?

I have already said I have no ready-made an­swers. I do, however, have a few thoughts which I would like to share with you—a few thoughts about the conditions which may set us on the difficult path.

One of the great dangers of modern, and especially American, culture is its reduction of a human being to history and to change. This is the first thing we Orthodox have to denounce and to resist. We must openly con­fess that there are things which do not change, that human nature does not, in fact, change; that such realities as sin, or righteousness, or holiness do not depend on the changing pattern of culture.

Yet I am absolutely convinced that sin is ex­actly the same for me as it was for Saint Paul, and that if there is no Devil, Christianity is no longer the same religion it was for nearly two thousand years.

How many times I have heard, for example, that in “our age” the concept of sin must be changed if it is to be relevant to modern man. How many times we have heard that in “our age” we cannot speak of the Devil. Yet I am absolutely convinced that sin is ex­actly the same for me as it was for Saint Paul, and that if there is no Devil, Christianity is no longer the same religion it was for nearly two thousand years. It is not enough to speak, as some Western theologians do, of the “demonic.” It is not enough to identify sin with alienation. And it is at this point that Orthodoxy has a tremendous responsibility, for it is fundamentally the belief in unchanging realities, it is the denunciation of all “reductions” as not only doctrinally wrong but also existentially destructive.

Thus, the first condition for anything else is sim­ply faith. Before anything else is possible, before I can speak of myself as belonging to this or that gen­eration, as immigrant or native, of our age as technological or post-industrial, and so forth, there is this one funda­mental reality: a human being standing before God and finding that life is communion with Him, knowledge of Him, faith in Him, that we are created literally for God.

Without this experience and affirmation, nothing has meaning. My real life is in God and in heaven. I was created for eternity. These simple affirmations are rejected as naive and irrelevant today, and in spite of all its Christian terminology. Western Christianity becomes more and more a self-centered humanism. At this point, no compromise is possible, and every­thing depends upon whether Orthodoxy will remain faithful to its God-centeredness, to its orientation to­ward the Transcendent, the Eternal, the Divine.

We do not deny that human beings need justice and bread. But before everything else they need God. Thus, we truly can do what we are called to do in spite of all temptations. The seemingly “charitable” character of these temptations misses the unchanging truth that our call is not only to proclaim or to defend, but first of all to live this unchanging, eternal hierarchy of values in which God and God alone is the beginning, the con­tent, and the end of everything.

This is the real content of the Orthodox faith, of our liturgy, of our sacra­ments. This is what we celebrate on Easter night. This is what is revealed at the Eucharistic Table. It is always the same thing, the same prayer, the same joy: “Thy Kingdom come … ” It is the understanding of life as indeed preparation, not simply for an eternal rest, but for the life which is more real than anything else—a life of which this life is but a “symbol” and a “sacrament.”

And Orthodoxy will lose all its salt if each one of us does not strive first of all for this personal faith and for this hunger for salva­tion, redemption, and deification.

I can hear and sense the reaction: “Oh, again paradise and hell; is that Christianity? Can this be preached in the twentieth century?” And I will an­swer: “Yes, it is. Yes, it can.” It is because so many people today have forgotten this, it is because all this has become “irrelevant” for Christians themselves, that so many are in hell already. And Orthodoxy will lose all its salt if each one of us does not strive first of all for this personal faith and for this hunger for salva­tion, redemption, and deification. Christianity begins only when we take seriously the words of Christ: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteous­ness; and all things shall be added unto you” (Mat­thew 6:33).

A VISION FOR THE FUTURE

But now let me share with you my second preliminary thought: Just as each one of us must discover for ourselves the “unchanging” and take part in the same, never-ending, spiritual fight, we must dis­cover ourselves as belonging to one particular genera­tion of Orthodox Christians living in the twentieth century in America, in a secular and pluralistic culture and in the midst of a great spiritual crisis.

What can we do together? What are the Orthodox imperatives for our common and corporate task? I think that here the priorities are rather clear, espe­cially when one speaks to students and for students, for the “student” is today the purest representative of what I call the “second Orthodoxy in America.” The first one—whether he came from the “Old World” or was born here—is still an immigrant in his mentality. He lives within the American culture but is not yet an organic part of it.

A student is by definition someone who can and must reflect. So far Orthodoxy in America has not reflected upon itself and upon its situation here. The Orthodox student is the first Orthodox who is called to reflect on his or her life as an Orthodox in America. On this reflection depends the future of our Church here, for this reflection will obviously be aimed at the problems that I mentioned earlier. So this is a crucial task. You will say either “yes” or “no” for the entire Orthodox Church on this continent.

Mission within our present situation means something more than simply convert­ing individuals to Orthodoxy. It means primarily an evaluation of American culture in Orthodox terms, and this is the real mission of the Orthodox “intelligentsia.”

To say yes, however, means to rediscover the Church as mission, and mission within our present situation means something more than simply convert­ing individuals to Orthodoxy. It means primarily an evaluation of American culture in Orthodox terms, and this is the real mission of the Orthodox “intelligentsia,” for no one else can do that.

THE ESSENTIALS OF ENCOUNTER

It is here that I must stress again the fundamental quality of American culture: its openness to criticism and change, to challenge and judgment. Throughout the whole of American history, Americans have asked: “What does it mean to be American?” “What is America for?” And they are still asking these ques­tions. Here is our chance, and here is our duty. The evaluation of American culture in Orthodox terms requires first a knowledge of Orthodoxy, and second a knowledge of the true American culture and tradition.

One cannot evaluate that which one does not know, love, and understand. Our mission, therefore, is first of all one of education. We—all of us—must become theologians, not in the technical sense of the word, but in terms of vital interest, concern, care for our faith, and above everything else, in terms of a relationship between faith and life, faith and culture, faith and the “American way of life.”

Let me give you one example. We all know that one of the deepest crises of our culture, of the entire modern world, is the crisis of family and the man-­woman relationship. I would ask, then: How can this crisis be related to and understood in terms of our belief in the one who is “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim. . . “—the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the Virgin?

Between the two extremes—of a surrender to America, of a surrender of America—we must find the narrow and the difficult way of the true Orthodox Tradition.

Where all this will lead us, I do not know. In the words of a hymn of Cardinal Newman: “I do not see the distant scene, one step enough for me.” But I know that between the two extremes—of a surrender to America, of a surrender of America—we must find the narrow and the difficult way of the true Orthodox Tradition. No solution will ever be final, and there is no final solution in “this world.”

We shall always live in tension and conflict, in the rhythm of victory and defeat. Yet if the Puritans could have had such a tremendous impact on Ameri­can culture, if Sigmund Freud could change it so deeply as to send two generations of Americans to the psychoanalytical couch, if  Marxism, in spite of all its phenomenal failures, can still inspire presumably in­telligent American intellectuals, why can’t the faith and the doctrine which we claim to be the true faith and the true doctrine have its chance? “O ye of little faith …. “

Marx and Freud never doubted, and they won their vicious victories. The modern Christian, how­ever, has a built-in inferiority complex. One historical defeat pushes him either into an apocalyptic fear and panicking, or into a “death of God” theology. The time has come, perhaps, simply to recover our faith and apply it with love and humility to the land which has become ours. And who can do that if not those who are given a full share in American culture?

Two things, then, are essential: first, the strength­ening of our personal faith and commitment. Whether priest or layperson, man or woman, the first thing for an Orthodox is not to speak about Orthodoxy, but to live it to full capacity; it is prayer, it is standing before God, it is the difficult joy of experiencing “heaven on earth.” This is the first thing, and it cannot be reached without effort, fasting, asceticism, sacrifice, or with­out the discovery of that which in the Gospel is called the “narrow way.”

And second, to use a most abused word, there must be a deep and real dialogue with America—not accommodation, not a compromise, for a dialogue may be indeed violent. If nothing else, it will achieve two things. It will reveal to us what is real and genuine in our faith and what is mere decoration. We may, indeed, lose all kinds of decorations which we errone­ously take for Orthodoxy itself. What will remain is exactly the faith which overcomes the world.

The more I live here, the more I believe that the encounter between Orthodoxy and America is a providential one. And because it is providential, it is being at­tacked, misunderstood, denied, and rejected on both sides.

In that dialogue we will also discover the true America, not the America which so many Orthodox curse and so many idolize, but the America of that great hunger for God and His righteousness which has always underlain the genuine American culture. The more I live here, the more I believe that the encounter between Orthodoxy and America is a providential one. And because it is providential, it is being at­tacked, misunderstood, denied, and rejected on both sides. Perhaps it is for us, here, now, today to understand its real meaning and to act accordingly.

THE MISSION OF ORTHODOXY

We know that the Orthodox youth of America must have a mission. And the first condition for mission is a spiritual foundation; we simply cannot move anywhere without faith and a personal commitment to Christian life. Further, it seems that we must think of our mission in terms of the particular situation we face in America, in this thoroughly secularized society.

But, what is a mission? “Mission” is one of those words much used and much abused today in America. So we must, first of all, clarify its meaning for us.

On the one hand it is clear to all, I hope, that in a sense every Christian is called to be a missionary. Every Christian is sent. When we say “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” the term “apostolic” means not only the continuity of ministry, as so many people seem to think, but also the apostolicity, i.e., the mis­sionary nature of the Church and of each of her members.

My being a missionary can be understood in a threefold way. In the first place, I am sent to myself. This means that the new Adam in me is always ready to challenge and to fight the old Adam—the “I” who is still very much “of this world” and subdued to it. In the second place, I am sent to others. This again is universal, and is not limited to bishops, priests, and missionaries in the strict sense of the word. And finally, I am sent as a missionary to the world. The scope of our vision and faith is always the salvation of all that for which Christ died, and He died “for the life of the world.” Thus, one cannot be saved without giving oneself to this mission. Everyone is a missionary .

Yet, on the other hand, as we begin seeking for concrete applications of these general definitions, the idea of mission becomes confused. It is indeed the eternal problem for each Christian individually and for every Christian generation to find their modality of mission—the way God wants them to fulfill their missionary calling. Just as each human being is unique, the way of fulfillment of vocation is also unique. And just as each historical situation is unique, the Christian mission of each generation is also in a way unique. This is why there are so many disagreements and controversies among the Orthodox today. Everyone admits that something needs to be done but there is no consensus yet on what exactly is to be done, and how. The disagreements concern, indeed, the nature of the Orthodox mission today.

THE PAST AND OUR TRADITION

In such a situation, we must always begin by looking to the past, by consulting with our tradition—not “archaeologically,” with an impossible, unrealis­tic, and futile desire simply to “restore” the past, but in an effort to discern the mind of the Church. The entire history of the Church is in a way the history of her mission, that is, of her relation to and action in the world. And as we look into that past, we discover there a rhythm, which I think could be defined as the rhythm of crisis and consolidation.

The entire history of the Church is in a way the history of her mission, that is, of her relation to and action in the world. And as we look into that past, we discover there a rhythm, which I think could be defined as the rhythm of crisis and consolidation.

Consider, for example, the Book of Acts, the earliest record of the Church’s life. It begins with an almost idyllic description of the first community in Jerusalem. The Church is growing, she is liked by all people, she is at peace. The difficulties—like the one with the couple who tried to lie and cheat—are quickly solved. Then comes the crisis, which is pri­marily a radical change in the external—cultural and spiritual—context within which she has to live.

Suddenly there are new problems facing the Church and disturbing her initial peace. There is the problem of mission to the non-Jews, the problem of circumcision, the concerns about the Jewish way of life—not even questioned before. It is, in other words, a crisis of growth, which is always painful and bitter. The Apostle Paul—the bearer and the symbol of the crisis—knew that without facing it, the Church would have remained a little Jewish sect and would never have been the universal challenge, the universal “question mark,” on everything in this world—all that she actually did become because of that first crisis.

But then a period of consolidation begins. From the midst of the second until the end of the third century, we discern a constant effort to do just that: to consolidate, to organize, to define the life of the Church, to build it on clear and solid principles­—the apostolic succession, the apostolic constitutions, the apostolic traditions, the canon of Scripture. On the eve of Constantine’s conversion the Church exists as a well-organized institution, “adjusted” to her universal mission, with a well-oiled mechanism for the solution of her daily problems.

There comes, however, a new crisis, provoked this time by the conversion of the Emperor and—in him—of the entire Graeco-Roman society. The Em­pire, which to the Church was the very symbol of the Antichrist, the Harlot, the new Babylon, becomes Christian. And it becomes Christian by a direct intervention of Christ Himself, who elects Constantine to be a “second Paul.” Once more the entire framework of the Church’s life is radically altered. There comes not only security and peace, but also wealth and privi­leges, the splendor of new basilicas, the rain of gold and silver, the political power, the new social status.

The bishops who only yesterday were in prison or in hideouts are invited to come to Nicea at the expense of the State, receive a “red carpet” treatment, and are submerged with gifts and honors. All this is so new, so unheard of! No wonder it provokes a crisis in the very consciousness of the Church.

The best proof of the new crisis is the great monastic exodus of the fourth century. At a time when Christians seem finally to enjoy all power, all possibilities, at this very time the best Christians, in tremendous numbers, leave for the desert. Yet, the important point here is that this very exodus becomes the starting point of a new consolidation, of the cre­ative adjustment of the Church to her new situation in the world. For without the monastic exodus and chal­lenge, the Church would have been in danger of accepting too easily her new and privileged “status”:  that of the State religion, of identifying herself with a culture, of losing the intensity of her eschatological prayer:  “Thy Kingdom come!”

It was the monk who, by preserving Christian maximalism and forcing it into the very texture of the Empire, laid in fact the foundations of the “Orthodox world” with its inner and creative tension between “heaven” and “earth.” What indeed made that Chris­tian world Christian, in spite of its many defects and shortcomings, is the fact that it never reduced the human being to anything—be it economics, or society, or culture—for it always remembered the eternal and divine vocation of Adam, always kept the Kingdom of God as its ultimate value. It always knew that every human is a sinful crea­ture called to heavenly glory, to the “honor of a high calling.”

POST-CHRISTIANITY

Our situation today is once more that of crisis, and it is the nature of that crisis that is to shape the orientation of our missionary effort. The fundamental meaning of the crisis lies in the fact that the Christian world born out of Constantine’s conversion, and the subsequent “symphony” between the Church, on the one hand, and the society, state, and culture, on the other, has ended.

Please do not misunderstand me. The end has come not of Christianity, not of Church or faith, but of a world which referred, however nominally at times, its whole life to Christ and had Christian faith as its ultimate criterion. All dreams about its restoration are doomed. For even if Christians were to recover control of states and societies, that would not auto­matically make these societies “Christian.” What happened occurred on a much deeper level.

The fact is, we are no longer living in a Christian world. There are those who simply accept the world’s view and surrender to secularism. And there are those whose nervous systems have not withstood the shock of the change and who, faced by the new situation, are panicking.

The fact is, we are no longer living in a Christian world. The world we live in has its own style and culture, its own ethos, and, above everything else, its own worldview. And so far Christians have not found and formulated a consistently Christian attitude to­wards the world and its worldview and are deeply split in their reaction to it. There are those who simply accept the world’s view and surrender to secularism. And there are those whose nervous systems have not withstood the shock of the change and who, faced by the new situation, are panicking.

If the first attitude leads little by little to the evaporation of faith itself, the second threatens us with the transformation of Orthodoxy into a sect. A man who feels perfectly at home in the secular and non-Christian world has probably ceased to be a Christian, at least in the traditional meaning of that term. But the one who is obsessed with a violent hatred and fear of the modern world has also left the grounds of the genuine Orthodox tradition. He needs the security of a sect, the assurance that he at least is saved in the midst of the universal collapse. There is very little Christianity and Orthodoxy in either view. If some forget that the Kingdom of God is “not of this world,” the others do not seem to remember that “per­fect love overcomes all fear.”

What the Church needs today, as it has needed it on several occasions in the past, is a dy­namic movement of young men and young women, a kind of “order” to fulfill the tasks that institution alone cannot and must not fulfill.

A TWOFOLD MISSIONARY PERSPECTIVE

If, as I said above, it is the very nature of the present crisis that must shape our missionary perspective, that perspective, in my opinion, consists of two fundamental attitudes, two urgent tasks:

  1. We must maintain at all costs that which many people today contemptuously call the Christian insti­tution. It takes some courage in our day to defend the institution against the powerful and anti-institutional trend which exists both on the right and on the left. It is indeed the ironic paradox of our time that the ultra­conservatives are at one with the ultra-radicals in undermining the institution.

The ultra-conservatives, by constantly measuring and comparing the “spirituality” or the “orthodoxy” of bishops and jurisdictions, appoint themselves as judges, setting the criteria and deciding charismatically whom they accept and whom they reject. In other words, they take upon themselves the decisions that belong to the Church and end up replacing the Orthodox doctrine of the Church with a new variety of Donatism or Montanism, heresies of misplaced and misdirected maximalism which, just because of their perceived maximalism, were the most difficult to de­stroy.

The ultra-radicals simply reject the very princi­ple of institution, which to them seems boring and alienating, and are ready to revise and re-evaluate everything in the light of their own supposedly “charismatic” insights. Here and elsewhere we find a common, deep misunderstanding of the Church:  the relationship in her between the institutional and the charismatic. And this misunderstanding is rooted, above all, in the lack of the fundamental Christian virtue: humility.

It is difficult, yet necessary, to say to young people who want excitement and maximalism, imme­diate action and spectacular achievements: “Your first duty, your first spiritual achievement, consists pre­cisely in accepting the institution, and doing so on its own terms, not yours. It consists in becoming­ deeply and humbly-part of it.”

For what is institution? It is the very fact of the presence and continuity of the Church, always the same, in the world, regardless of all crises, of all changes. It is the guarantee that whether there are prophets or not, whether there are saints and leaders to inspire and lead us, there will be a priest standing at my bed at the hour of my death, pronouncing words of hope, joy, and victory which he did not invent and may even have not felt, but which through him have been preserved by the Church. It is the guarantee that Sunday after Sunday someone—who may be good, bad, or mediocre—will have the right and the duty to offer to God “His own of His own on behalf of all and for all” and thus to make possible all charisms and all inspiration.

  1. There must be a faithful remnant which relates to the world as it is today. This is the second task; the one that could be performed beyond the unchanging limits of the institution, and which is determined by the specific situation in which the Church finds her­self at any particular period of her history. If the proper function of the institution is to maintain and to make available always and everywhere the unchang­ing essence of the Christian faith and the Christian life, this mission deals with this or that particular situation, with the world as it is now. Again, this mission is always the task of a remnant.

To me the answer is comprised in one word: movement. What the Church needs today, as it has needed it on several occasions in the past, is a dy­namic movement of young men and young women, a kind of “order” to fulfill the tasks that institution alone cannot and must not fulfill. If the inner core of such a movement is to consist mainly, if not exclusively, of students, it is because a student is by definition a being whose life is yet open and available.

But the emphasis, of course, is not on “student” but on “movement.” The student, as any other member of such a movement, is its subject and agent, not its object. The movement is, in other words, to be di­rected at the tasks to be performed for the Church and not at some specific “student needs.”

Here’s a spiritual profile of a “missionary” in this necessary movement: prayer, obedience, and acceptance.

VOWS FOR TODAY

I have in mind a kind of spiritual profile of that movement and of those who will take part in it. To me, it looks in some way like a new form of monasticism without celibacy and without the desert, but based upon specific vows. I can think of three such vows:

  1. PRAYER: The first vow is to keep a certain well-defined spiritual discipline of life, and this means a rule of prayer: an effort to maintain a level of personal contact with God; what the Fathers call the “inner memory of Him.” It is very fashionable today to discuss spirituality and to read books about it. But whatever the degree of our theoretical knowledge about spirituality, it must begin with a simple and humble decision, an effort, and—what is the most difficult—regularity. Nothing indeed is more danger­ous than pseudo-spirituality whose unmistakable signs are self-righteousness, pride, readiness to mea­sure other people’s spirituality, and emotionalism.

What the world needs now is a generation of men and women not only speaking about Christianity, but also living it. Early monasticism was, first of all, a rule of prayer. It is precisely a rule we need, one which could be practiced and followed by all and not only by some. For indeed what you say is less and less impor­tant today. People are moved only by what you are, and this means by the total impact of your personality, of your personal experience, commitment, dedication.

  1. OBEDIENCE: The second vow is the vow of obedience, and this is what present-day Orthodox lack more than anything else. Perhaps without noticing it, we live in a climate of radical individualism. People tailor for themselves their own kind of “Orthodoxy,” their own ideal of the Church, their own style of life. And yet, the whole spiritual literature emphasizes obedi­ence as the condition of all spiritual progress.

What I mean by obedience here, however, is something very practical. It is obedience to the movement itself. The movement must know on whom it can depend. It is the obedience in small things, humble chores, the unromantic routine of work. Obedience here is the antithesis not of disobedience, but of hys­terical individualism. “I” feel, “I” don’t feel. Stop “feeling” and do. Nothing will be achieved without some degree of organization, strategy, and obedience.

  1. ACCEPTANCE: The third vow could be de­scribed, in terms of one spiritual author, as “digging one’s own hole.” So many people want to do anything except precisely what God wants them to do, for to accept this and perhaps even to discern it is one of the greatest spiritual difficulties. It is very significant that ascetical literature is full of warnings against chang­ing places, against leaving monasteries for other and “better” ones, against the spirit of unrest, that constant search for the best external conditions. Again, what we need today is to relate to the Church and to Christ our lives, our professions—the unique combination of factors which God gives us as our examination and which we alone can pass or fail.

Although we are not of this world, we are in it.

THE TASK AHEAD

One might ask: What would a movement of this kind set as its goals? What would be its mission?

The first goal would be to help people, and first of all the movement’s own members, to experience and to live their Orthodox faith. We all know there exists today a real discrepancy between the Orthodox ideal of the Church—of “sobornost,” of liturgical life—and reality. There must be a place, a situation, where this ideal can be tasted, experienced, lived, be it only partially and imperfectly. Here the experience of other Orthodox movements is conclusive. It is because their members experienced—at their conferences, retreats, study groups—the joy and the meaning of Church life that they could witness to it and call to the Church “at large.”

Then the second goal of our mission can be termed intellectual. We are living at a time and in a situation in which all, not only professional theolo­gians, are called to know and to be ready to confess. Our time is the time of a gigantic ideological struggle. Without a new concern by the Orthodox about the content of their faith and its implications for their entire life, our Church will lose.

Finally, the movement is to care about those needs of the Church about which a parish or a diocese does not or cannot care: reaching youth, finding the total place and function of the Church in our world, accepting—creatively—the challenges of modern culture. All this is our task because being not of this world, we are in it, left in it to witness and to reveal.

All this will take time to build. Yet we must think in terms of a remnant, of a movement, of service. We must begin with ourselves, if we are to be of service to the Church. When God gives something, a talent, He wants us to invest it. He wants us to serve.

There is no other way of following Christ.

This article is available in pamphlet form from Ancient Faith Ministries.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reflection, Uncategorized

Sermon on Luke 12:16-21 (The Rich Fool)

Sermon on Luke 12:16-21 (The Rich Fool)
By Daniel VanderKolk

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

Today God calls someone a word that no one ever wants to hear: “fool“!

How scary is the thought of being called a fool by God!

Why does God call this man a fool? The man was rich. He worked his land well. He saved his extra crops. God even blessed his soil and gave this rich man good harvests.

So why is this rich man called a fool by God? Is it a sin to work hard, budget for the future, and save our resources?

No. Hard work is the virtue of diligence. Budgeting for the future is the virtue of prudence. Saving our resources is the virtue of frugality. So why is this rich man a fool?

Because this rich man fooled himself into thinking that all he had in life was his own. The man who wisely managed his goods, foolishly managed his thoughts. This rich fool said to himself: “I am the author of my life, my goods are my own”. This rich fool wrote God out of his life.

He separated himself from God who said, through the words of Saint Paul, that those rich in this present age should be rich also in good works. They should be ready to share. They should be generous. They should store up treasure for themselves in heaven.

This rich fool did not see himself as a steward of God’s treasure. He thought that by ignoring God’s command to feed the poor he would have more of the good things in life. He thought that he would have more joy and fulfillment by following his own will and ignoring God’s will.

parable of the rich fool_2017The rich fool forgot that God gives us all good things in life. The rich fool forgot that God wants us to be filled with joy by accumulating an abundance of virtues. The rich man only sought to please his own stomach, never once thinking about how to please God. His body lacked no physical food, but his soul was starved for virtue.

God gave the rich man treasuries of food so that the rich man would cultivate love in his own heart by being charitable to his neighbor. But the rich man chose the fleeting joy of an overfull stomach rather than the eternal joy of supporting the poor. God wanted this man to be rich in virtue.

This man’s stomach wanted him to be starved for virtue. God knows that we easily love our stomachs more than we love His commandments. Thankfully, God easily loves us more than we love our stomachs.

God loves us so much that He gave His only-begotten Son to a humiliating crucifixion. But Christ’s life did not end with death. Christ conquered death, ascended into Heaven, and reigns at the right hand of the Father.

So too, our lives do not end with death. After death, we will be judged. And after the judgment we hope to behold our Lord in heaven. We hope to feed on the joy that comes from eternal communion with God. As we sing in the Troparion for the Departed: “Give rest to the soul of thy servant O Savior, preserving it in the blessed life which is with Thee, who lovest mankind.”

Because of Christ’s victory over death, we no longer fear death. Because of Christ’s victory over death, we look with joy to the life to come. We steward well the treasures God gives us in this life. We eagerly hoard good deeds and virtues, because they are the only things we can take with us into the next life.

On the 26th of December, 1782, Vassily Drozdov came into this world. He grew up in the town of Kolomna, near Moscow. God gave Vassily many gifts. He was able to study in some of the finest schools in Russia.

He never once thought that he deserved or earned his good things in life. He was grateful to God for all of the treasures he received. Vassily knew that he was partner, with God, in all of his endeavors in life. When God, in His love, gave Vassily learning and understanding, Vassily, with deep gratitude, wanted to return God’s love.

Out of love for God, Vassily chose to use his intellectual gifts to pursue virtue, for God’s glory. Vassily taught at seminary, considering the professional duties of a teacher of utmost importance. He cared for his seminarians, spent time with them, prayed for them, and loved them.

Vassily also used his intellectual gifts to feed the sheep outside of his seminary. Late at night, when Vassily was tempted to eat, drink, and be merry, he called his own stomach a fool and chose to be rich toward God. He labored at night, writing edifying words for his Orthodox brothers and sisters.

Vassily loved his neighbor. Vassily loved God. Vassily loved virtue.

On the 6th of November, 1808, Vassily, the seminary professor was tonsured Philaret, the monk. “Philaret” means “he who loves virtue”. Truly, St. Philaret, the Metropolitan of Moscow, loves virtue with all his heart.

Emulate his love. Practice the virtue of thankfulness today. As you sit down to eat dinner tonight, pause for a moment.

Think of all the hard work that went into your meal. Think of the people who labored over your food. Think of the good favor God showed you in allowing the farmer’s crops to grow and produce the food that you are now eating.

Think of God’s love in supporting our economy, the economy that allows you to purchase such good food. Think to yourself that although God implants in us the need to nourish ourselves with food, He also allows us to enjoy our food and derive pleasure from fulfilling our daily needs.

And then say aloud: “The poor shall eat and shall be filled. Those who seek the Lord shall praise Him; their hearts shall live forever.”

And as you eat your dinner, fill your mind with nutritious thoughts. Think of how St. Philaret enjoyed eating food but did not obsess over his stomach. Think of how St. Philaret loved virtue more than he loved food. Think of how St. Philaret was a good steward of the treasures God gave to him, because St. Philaret knew that all good things in life come from God.

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


Seminarian Daniel Vanderkolk is a 3rd-year Master of Divinity student, from the Diocese of the Midwest, Orthodox Church in America. Prior to coming to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, he taught 10th-grade Latin Language and Literature at Oakdale Academy in Waterford, MI. This homily was given on Sunday, November 19, 2017, at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, New Haven, CT, where Seminarian Vanderkolk is a student intern under rector, Archpriest Michael Westerberg. On that Sunday the Orthodox Church also commemorated the repose of St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow.

Comments Off on Sermon on Luke 12:16-21 (The Rich Fool)

Filed under Homily, Reflection, Uncategorized

Homily upon First Archpastoral Visit of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon in New Academic Year

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and Chairman of the Board of our seminary, made his first archpastoral visit of the new academic year to our campus on Sunday, September 24, 2017, which marked the Synaxis of All Saints of Alaska. In addition to seminary faculty, staff, and seminarians, and area faithful, participants in a three-day conference organized by the Orthodox Vision Foundation [OVF] gathered for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, at which Metropolitan Tikhon presided in Three Hierarchs Chapel.

We’re pleased to share His Beatitude’s inspiring homily on that occasion, which thoughtfully focuses on a “martyric” way of life as a witness to Christ and His teaching, and which marks the perfect path to becoming truly human.

[Reprinted article, with permission from oca.org]


HOMILY

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

At the beginning of today’s Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offers these words:

Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor 6.1–2)

AllSaints-NAmerica-DeisisIt often happens that the readings from the lectionary fit the occasion perfectly. And so today the Orthodox Vision Foundation has brought many of you together for the first time, Orthodox leaders in your fields of business, science, medicine, the arts, education and social service to get to know each other, to learn about the possibilities and challenges for philanthropy, for new projects, and to experience a taste of a seminary’s life. It is good that you see for yourselves the students and families and faculty and staff who have set aside other careers and potentials in order to sacrifice and serve the mission of the Church. It is remarkable that every year a new crop of men and women make this decision to set upon the uncertain path of service in the Church.

They are needed and you are needed to carry this mission forward.

I know that Father John Behr began the conference with a talk on martyrdom, on the martyr as the image of a human being fully alive. Today we celebrate the feast of the Protomartyr and Equal to the Apostles, Thekla, a disciple of Saint Paul and a great image of martyrdom. The second epistle for today, for the martyrs, was from Romans, chapter 8.And here we have one of the most moving passages in Saint Paul’s letters speaking personally and precisely about this life of witness.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8.35–39)

The Gospel for the martyrs makes this an exhortation for our witness today:

This will be a time for you to bear testimony….You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Lk 21.12–19)

As you all know, this picture is a reality today. Millions and millions of Christians, from all churches—Orthodox and non-Orthodox—face serious pressure and outright persecution in many parts of the world. We here are called not only to help share their burden, but also to share their witness for Christ where we are, here in North America. Perhaps we often get discouraged at the prospects as we look around at the meager fruit from years of labor. But once again, the readings are perfectly fitted for today. The Sunday Gospel recounts the great and unexpected catch of fish:

Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking….But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken…. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Lk 5.5–11)

With realistic statistics there are about 1,000,000 Orthodox in the United States, which is a very small fraction of the 325,000,000 people in our country. In North America the population is 500,000,000. It is time for us, as the Orthodox on this continent, to expand the mission of the Church. In the Orthodox Church in America, since the arrival of the first missionaries in Alaska in 1794, over 700 parishes and missions have been established, by God’s grace. In the last ten years, we have provided over $1,000,000 in planting grants to new missions. But this is a drop in the bucket. In the United States, 90% of the counties in this country do not have a single accessible Orthodox parish, where the services and the life of the community are open to all and conducted in the language understood by the local population, either English or Spanish.

And, of course, there are thousands and perhaps millions of new immigrants and refugees who are looking for the life of the Church in their own languages.

But all of those languages become intelligible not through the development of better translating programs or through countless hours spent with Rosetta Stone. As practical and helpful as these tools are, the languages that separate us become intelligible through our love for one another, but not the emotional or saccharine love that is presented to us in social and entertainment media, but the sacrificial love of martyrdom. Another great saint that we commemorate today is Saint Silouan the Athonite, who gives us some guidance in this when he writes:

The greater the love, the greater the suffering of the soul. The fuller the love, the fuller the knowledge of God

The more ardent the love, the more fervent the prayer. The more perfect the love, the holier the life.

The Orthodox missionary task in North America sets before us a huge challenge worthy of a lifetime of work. But this will mean not only plans and projects and funding and measurements of success. It will call on us to deepen our spiritual life. It will call on us to keep attending to healing what is broken in our own lives. It will call on us to share in humility the healing that we have received in Christ.

There can be no missionary effort, no way to reach those who question Christ and the Church, those who doubt, the 25% of the population who have given up on faith, those who suffer, those who are broken, without our having first entered the arena to become a genuine person in the image of Christ. It is here that we begin to fulfill our apostolic ministry.

I close with the words of a fiery preacher of the 20th Century, Saint Nikolai Velimirovic, himself having given a martyric example in the concentration camps of Dachau. He offers this prayer:

You are the only event of my life, O lamp of my soul.

When a child scurries to the arms of his mother, events do not exist for him.

When a bride races to meet her bridegroom, she does not see the flowers in the meadows, nor does she hear the rumbling of the storm, nor does she smell the fragrance of the cypress or sense the mood of the wild animals — she sees only the face of her bridegroom; she hears only the music from his lips; she smells only his soul.

When love goes to meet love, no events befall it. Time and space make way for love.

Aimless wanderers and loveless people have events and have history. Love has no history and history has no love.

Brothers and sisters. You who are gathered here have so many gifts. You are accustomed to working hard, overcoming failures, persisting and enduring. By God’s grace, may this time together this week enable you to apply all that you have received and experienced to recommit yourselves—or perhaps commit yourself for the first time—to serve Christ and the mission of His Church for the life of the world. There are so many ways to serve this mission. May our Lord inspire you to find those ways that most set your soul on fire for the glory of the Kingdom and to the glory of God.

Amen!

Comments Off on Homily upon First Archpastoral Visit of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon in New Academic Year

Filed under Homily, Reflection, Uncategorized

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).

Comments Off on July: A “month-long spiritual desert”

Filed under Reflection, Uncategorized

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Reflection

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)

4 Comments

Filed under Reflection

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.

Comments Off on God does not need words

Filed under Reflection, SVS Press Excerpt