Sunday, April 5, 2015

Homily for Palm Sunday

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest (Mt. 21:9)!”

Dear brothers and sisters, yesterday we commemorated the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Today, with palm branches in hand, let us lay aside all earthly cares and receive the King of All, the Son of David, “mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden (Zech. 9:9).” Why did the Lord come into Jerusalem like this? Why did He come riding on such a lowly animal?

First, the donkey is a humble animal. When a king rides triumphantly into a city, he is accompanied by many armed men and strikes fear into the hearts of the inhabitants. The King of All comes riding on a simple animal, in simple clothing, accompanied by men of no renown. This is the opposite of the wisdom of the world, for as the Holy Apostle Paul says, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty (1 Cor. 1:27).” See how the young and innocent children gather around Him, praising Him from their hearts, waving the palm branches? They did not see a poor man riding upon a donkey. Rather, as a hymn from last night’s vigil tells us: “They saw the Master of all riding upon a colt, as though upon the cherubim!”

Second, the donkey is an animal of peace. Our Lord is not like a conquering king on a horse; He has no desire to force us to become His slaves. Rather, He is depicted as entering into Jerusalem, meek and unarmed. As He says to St. John in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me (Rev. 3:20).” Christ does not capture us with an irresistible grace, but allows us the choice to reject Him.

Instead of forcing the Jews to accept Him as their Messiah, He laments over their hard-heartedness, and says: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not (Mt. 23:27)!” Indeed, although the multitudes shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they will soon cry out “Crucify Him!”

Finally, the donkey is a beast of burden. When an earthly king conquers a city, he imposes harsh laws, compels men to labor for him, and exacts tribute. Our Lord did not come into Jerusalem in order to burden His subjects, but rather to take up their burdens upon Himself. For as the Prophet Isaiah said: “He took our infirmities, and bore our diseases (Is. 53:4).” Instead of imposing harsh laws, Our Lord came to loose them from the curse of the Law. Instead of forced labor, Our Lord came to free them from the slavery to sin. Instead of exacting tribute, Our Lord came to pay their ancestral debt, to free them from the tyranny of the devil.

Indeed, Our Lord came to conquer, but not an earthly kingdom, for His kingdom is “not of this world (Jn. 18:36).” Rather, He came to conquer the empire of sin and death ruled by the devil. However, the Jews did not want the heavenly kingdom. They wanted an earthly kingdom; or rather earthly power, for they were willing to bow to Caesar if they received some kind of benefit. They did not want to have anything to do with Christ. They attributed His miracles to the devil and even wanted to kill Lazarus because the miracle of his return from the grave inspired the people.

The Jewish leaders thus had a childish mentality, and hearts harder than stones. In their hands they bore staves, to arrest and beat their Messiah. In their mouths they bore evil tongues, to blaspheme and mock their God. Finally, they bore him to the Romans, to be given the death of a common criminal.

The Jews did many wicked things to Our Lord, but what about us? Will we be accounted more worthy? Or rather, will we not be held more accountable, because we received more than they did? They had Moses and the Prophets, but we have Christ. They received the Law, but we received the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. They ate manna in the wilderness and died, but we will eat the Bread of Life, the medicine of immortality, the Holy Eucharist.

Let us be more watchful over our thoughts and actions. How many of us commit the same sins over and over again? How many of us praise God with our lips but curse our brother in our heart? Let us not receive Christ at one moment and crucify Him in the next. Rather than imitating the Jews whor , let us imitate the Hebrew children who carried branches and praised the Son of David. Let us also consider the lowly donkey, bearing the Savior, peaceable and humble, and thus bear one another’s burdens. In so doing, we will enter the great procession of saints into the New Jerusalem, the eternal kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, to Whom be all glory, honor, and worship unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Homily for Lazarus Saturday


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Dear brothers and sisters, today we commemorate the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus lay in the tomb for four days. His body, bound in the grave clothes, began to decompose and stink. Outside the tomb, his sisters Martha and Mary wept and lamented, while Death, that all-devouring wolf, licked his chops and exulted with Hades.

The joy of Death and Hades turned into lamentation when they heard the voice of the Son of Man saying, “Lazarus, come forth!” A hymn written by St. Romanos the Melodist depicts Death and Hades screaming in terror when they saw the divine power of Christ permeating the body of Lazarus, 
“making his body ready for the summons of the giver of life, arranging his hair, weaving his membranes, and putting together his viscera, extending all his veins, sending blood into them again, mending his arteries, so that Lazarus, ready when he is called, will arise.”
The gospels tell us that Christ restored to life two other people: the son of the widow from Naïn, and the daughter of Jairus. However, these two had just died; their bodies were still fresh when Jesus called them back to life. Lazarus, on the other hand, was already dead for four days, and his body succumbed to the law of nature and began to return to the elements from whence they came. For when Adam fell into sin and turned against the Giver of Life, the Lord told him: “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:19).” Our Lord came to annul that ancient curse, to return Adam to his former estate. He overcame the stronghold of death, and reversed the course of nature. He restored Lazarus to life and called him from the grave, in anticipation of His own resurrection from the dead eight days later.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, and whosoever believes in Him, even if he dies, will live. At the same time, Our Lord is also a man like us, having assumed human nature in its fullness, yet without sin. We see this when, as man, He asked where Lazarus is buried, though as God He knew all things. As man, He was grieved by His friend’s death, and wept, but as God He raised him from the dead.

The friends of Jesus, Martha and Mary, had great faith in Him. Martha confessed that He was “the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world (Jn. 11:27).” And because of their great faith, the Lord, out of His compassion and love for them raised Lazarus from the dead.

What does this teach us? First, as St. Gregory the Theologian tells us, it teaches us of the power of intercession. Lazarus was dead, and he could not do anything for himself, but because of the great faith and love of his sisters, Christ heard their supplications and restored him to life. Of course, they did not expect Him to raise their brother from the dead, and we should not expect such miracles either, for as it is written, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign (Mt. 12:39).” But we should remember that the dead need our prayers, because they cannot do anything for themselves, the time for repentance having ended for them.

A second mystery revealed by the raising of Lazarus is that of friendship with Christ. It is strange to think that the Lord, who is “no respecter of persons (Rom. 2:11),” should have friends, especially such close friends as Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. However, the gospel tells us that He loved them very much. It is not because He had some kind of partiality towards them, but that they responded to His love to a much greater extent than did others.

Our Lord loves each of us as much as he loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and desires that we enter into communion with Him, a communion of deep friendship. Sadly, we do not listen to the words of our Shepherd, but instead seek other pastures. We go astray in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. We seek comfort and security not in the Lord, but in ourselves. Little by little, we bind ourselves with our passions, until we cannot break free from them, and we enclose ourselves in a tomb of our own making. Who can save us from this predicament, from this “body of death (Rom. 7:24)?”

Christ is calling us to come out of ourselves, out of our selfishness, our desires for lust and power, to be loosed from our passions. Many of us despair that it is too late, that we cannot turn back from our way, but Christ, who is able to bring Lazarus from the tomb after his body began to stink, can bring you back from the decay of sin.

Come forth! And be loosed from the bands of sin!
Come forth! And be loosed from the bands of corruption!
Come forth! And be loosed from the bands of death!

Let us receive Christ’s gift of forgiveness purchased for us through His Cross and Resurrection, a miracle greater than the raising of the dead, and not squander it. Let us instead be mindful of our end and live according to the Gospel, so that we may be raised with Lazarus on the last day and glorify the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

St. Gregory the Theologian (First Oration on Pascha)

This is the first oration of St. Gregory the Theologian (†390), given when he was a newly-ordained priest in his home town of Nazianzus. St. Gregory was ordained against his will by his father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder, to assist him and eventually take over his bishopric. Out of a sense of humility and a desire to lead a contemplative life, St. Gregory fled to Pontus, but soon returned to Nazianzus to deliver this sermon.

I adapted the translation from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers to give it more of an Orthodox flavor (since the original translators were Protestants) and with comparison with the original Greek. Most of the changes are contained in the first paragraph, which now match the translations of the paschal liturgical texts, which were inspired by this oration. I also have adapted notes from the 1912 Russian edition of St. Gregory’s works.

Our Father among the Saints Gregory the Theologian, Archbishop of Constantinople

Oration I
On the Holy Pascha and His Tardiness

1. It is the day of Resurrection, and an auspicious beginning. Let us be radiant for the feast, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, Brethren, even to them who hate us (Is. 66:5); much more to those who have done or suffered aught out of love for us. Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection: let us give one another pardon, I for the noble tyranny which I have suffered (for I can now call it thus); and you who exercised it, if you had cause to blame my tardiness; for perhaps this tardiness may be more precious in God’s sight than the haste of others. For it is a good thing even to hold back from God for a little while, as did the great Moses of old (Ex. 4:10), and Jeremiah later on (Jer. 1:6); and then to run readily to Him when He calls, as did Aaron (Ex. 4:27) and Isaiah (Is. 1:6), so only both be done in a dutiful spirit;—the former because of his own want of strength; the latter because of the might of Him that calleth.

2. A Mystery anointed me; I withdrew for a little while at a Mystery, as much as was needful to examine myself; now I come in with a Mystery, [1] bringing with me the day as a good defender of my cowardice and weakness; that He Who today rose again from the dead may renew me also by His Spirit; and, clothing me with the new man, may give me to His new creation, to those who are begotten after God, as a good modeller and teacher for Christ, willingly both dying with Him and rising again with Him.

3. Yesterday the Lamb was slain and the door-posts were anointed (Ex. 12), and Egypt bewailed her firstborn, and the destroyer passed us over, and the Seal was dreadful and reverend, and we were walled in with the precious blood. Today we have clean escaped from Egypt, from Pharaoh the bitter despot and the armed charioteers, and from clay and brick-making; there will be none to hinder us from keeping a feast to the Lord our God—the feast of our exodus—or from celebrating that feast, not in the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but in the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:8), carrying with us nothing of ungodly and Egyptian leaven.

4. Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with Him; yesterday I died with Him, today I am quickened with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him, today I rise with Him. But let us bring forth fruit to Him Who suffered and rose again for us. You will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material of earth, that remains here below, and is for the most part always possessed by bad men, slaves of the world and of the lord of the world. Let us bring forth ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting; let us give back to the image what is made according to the image. Let us recognize our dignity, let us honour our archetype, let us know the power of the Mystery [2], and for what Christ died.

5. Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become gods for His sake, since He for ours became man. He assumed the worse that He might give us the better; He became poor that we through His poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9); He took upon Him the form of a servant that we might receive back our liberty; He came down that we might be exalted; He was tempted that we might conquer; He was dishonoured that He might glorify us; He died that He might save us; He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were lying low in the calamity of sin. Let us give all, bring forth all, to Him Who gave Himself a ransom and a reconciliation for us. But one can give nothing like oneself, understanding the Mystery, and becoming for His sake all that He became for ours.

6. As you see, He offers you a Shepherd; for this is what your Good Shepherd [3], who lays down his life for his sheep, is hoping and praying for, and he asks from you his subjects; and he gives you himself double instead of single, and makes the staff of his old age a staff for your spirit. And he adds to the inanimate temple a living one [4]; to that exceedingly beautiful and heavenly shrine, this poor and small one, yet to him of great value, and built too with much sweat and many labours. Would that I could say it is worthy of his labours. And he places at your disposal all that belongs to him (O great generosity! —or it would be truer to say, O fatherly love!) his hoar hairs, his youth, the temple, the high priest, the testator, the heir, the discourses which you were longing for; and of these not such as are vain and poured out into the air, and which reach no further than the outward ear; but those which the Spirit writes and engraves on tables of stone, or of flesh, not merely superficially graven, nor easily to be rubbed off, but marked very deep, not with ink, but with grace.

7. These are the gifts given you by this august Abraham, this patriarch, this honourable and reverend head, this repository of all good, this standard of virtue, this perfection of the priesthood, who today is bringing to the Lord his willing sacrifice, his only son, him of the promise. Do you on your side offer to God and to us obedience to your Pastors, dwelling in a place of herbage, and being fed by water of refreshment (Ps. 23:2); knowing your Shepherd well, and being known by him (Jn. 10:14); and following when he calls you as a Shepherd frankly through the door; but not following a stranger climbing up into the fold like a robber and a traitor; nor listening to a strange voice when such would take you away by stealth and scatter you from the truth on mountains (Ez. 34:6), and in deserts, and pitfalls, and places which the Lord does not visit; and would lead you away from the sound faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the one power and Godhead, Whose voice my sheep always heard (and may they always hear it), but with deceitful and corrupt words would tear them from their true Shepherd. From which may we all be kept, shepherd and flock, as from a poisoned and deadly pasture; guiding and being guided far away from it, that we may all be one in Christ Jesus, now and unto the heavenly rest. To Whom be the glory and the might unto the ages. Amen.

Notes:

1. St. Gregory here uses the word mystery to refer to a feast. Thus, according to the 1912 SP edition, he was ordained on Nativity, fled on Theophany, and returned for Pascha. However, this interpretation is anachronistic, since Nativity (as a separate feast from Theophany) was not a separate holiday at this point, having been introduced to the Eastern church nearly twenty years after this oration took place.

2. This feast, Pascha.

3. Meaning his father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder.

4. Referring to himself.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Sergius of Radonezh: A Comparison of Lives


This is a conference paper given last October on the occasion of the St. Sergius Conference held at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary. Since today (technically tomorrow, but liturgically it’s already his feast day) is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, I am publishing these remarks. These might be published some day, in which event I will take this paper offline, but until then, I hope you find it edifying.

Today, we are commemorating the 700th anniversary of the birth of St. Sergius. The theme of this conference made me wonder: who would the monks of St. Sergius’ time regard as their monastic forefathers? If they met together, perhaps they would have spoken of the fathers of the Kiev Caves, the Desert Fathers, or any of the other great fathers of the East. I think they would have lauded the feats of a father of the West, St. Benedict of Nursia, whose biography was available to them in Slavonic translation. This saint was born in 5th century Italy, nine hundred years before St. Sergius blessed Prince Dimitry to fight Khan Mamay at Kulikovo. His parents, of distinguished birth, sent him to Rome for a liberal education, but Benedict saw the sinful exploits of his classmates and left everything to serve God in the wilderness. There, he lived as a hermit, battled demonic temptations, and gained many followers. He founded over a dozen monasteries in Italy, including the famous monastery of Monte Cassino which stands to this day. He had gifts of clairvoyance and wonderworking, and was able to foretell the day of his death.

As we can see from this brief summary, both St. Benedict and St. Sergius led very similar lives. In this paper, I would like to compare the two saints based on the record left by their hagiographers. St. Benedict’s life forms part of the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome. St. Gregory wrote his Dialogues in the 6th century in order to demonstrate that the saints of Italy were just as grace-filled as the ascetics of the East. Thus, he patterned his accounts after the lives of ascetics such as St. Anthony the Great. The Dialogues were so popular that they were translated into many languages including Greek and Slavonic. In the Orthodox Church, St. Gregory is known as “the Dialogist” and is credited with the composition of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. The life of St. Sergius was first recorded by Epiphanius the Wise and revised by Pachomius the Serb; it follows the Byzantine hagiographical tradition. Although Epiphanius and Gregory used common tropes of hagiography, they wrote while their subjects were still in living memory, and used the testimonies of their disciples. Thus, when we read the lives of Benedict and Sergius in tandem, the individual personalities of both saints come through. In addition to hagiography, I will also reference the famous monastic rule which St. Benedict introduced in his monastery. According to St. Gregory, “Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching.” This rule is still in use today in hundreds of monastic communities around the world, including Benedictine monastic houses in our own Russian Church Abroad.

I will compare the two saints in four areas. First, I will examine each saint’s response to temptations. Second, I will compare how each saint lead his monastic community. Third, I will look at how each saint’s interacted with the secular authorities. Finally, I will recount the mystical experiences of each saint, and how these experiences are interpreted in Eastern and Western theology.

When Benedict and Sergius turned to the monastic life, they followed the example of the Desert Fathers and went into the wilderness. There was no desert in Italy or Northern Russia; Benedict instead settled in a cave, Sergius in the deep forest. Neither man was completely alone. Benedict had a visitor, the monk Romanus, who clothed him with the monastic habit and fed him with bread from a nearby monastery. Sergius (or as he was then called, Bartholomew) found his forest habitation with his older brother Stefan, but Stefan could not get used to life in the wilderness and soon went back to his monastery in Moscow. Later, a monk named Mitrofan came and tonsured the young Bartholomew into the angelic life, and became his spiritual father. Despite this occasional company, Sergius and Benedict were mostly alone, and fought alone against both the demons and their own passions. Each saint had his own “fighting style.”

St. Benedict used the common ascetic practices of prayer, fasting, and vigils. However, when he was faced with strong temptation, he was nearly willing to destroy his own body in order to win against the passions. Once, the demon appeared to him in a form of a woman whom the saint had seen in Rome. Inflamed with passion, he fought it by flinging himself into a brier patch and rolling in the thorns and nettles. St. Gregory writes: “Before long, the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart.” As he became more spiritually mature, St. Benedict stuck to the middle path and introduced the spirit of moderation into his monasteries, requiring “nothing harsh or burdensome” and allowing for concessions to the young, the weak, and the elderly. Nevertheless, he was a man of his time, and was not above using physical force when necessary. When the saint had already established many monasteries, one of his abbots told him that he was having problems with a monk who would always leave the common prayers. The saint rebuked the wayward monk several times, but without success. St. Benedict then saw with his spiritual eyes a small black demon leading the monk away from prayer. The saint defeated the demon by beating the monk with his staff. The corrected monk never left his prayers again. Benedict did not beat his monk out of cruelty, but in order to wake him up. The Rule of St. Benedict also prescribes corporal punishment in many cases. It seems that the saint believed that the kingdom of God is literally taken by force.

St. Sergius faced similar temptations, but he did not resort to such extreme measures. In praising him, we sing at Little Vespers: “O venerable father, with great abstinence, pure supplications and the sweat of ascetic toil thou didst extinguish the burning coals of the body…” After the hegumen Mitrofan left him in the wilderness, Sergius faced many attacks from demons and wild beasts. Hordes of demons—depicted as Lithuanians in the hagiography—pounced upon him and threatened him with many violent words. The saint responded to the demonic attacks through prayer and the sign of the cross. The demon fired the arrows of carnal temptation, but the saint shielded himself from them through prayer. Wild beasts also roamed the forest, howling, roaring, and surrounding the saint, even sniffing at him! Throughout these temptations Sergius remained undisturbed. He was even friendly with one of the beasts, a hungry bear. This bear would come to the saint’s hermitage nearly every day, and the saint would give him some of his bread to eat. Sergius would even go hungry so the bear would not go away with an empty stomach. Whereas St. Benedict violently killed the passions, St. Sergius “lulled them to sleep” through prayer, fasting, and manual labor. Instead of standing in a mosquito-infested swamp or living on a pillar, he let the harsh elements of his environment become the source of his podvig. His feeding of the bear also symbolizes a different approach to the passions. Instead of trying to crush the passions like St. Benedict did, St. Sergius transformed the passions and made them submit to the needs of his spirit, just as he tamed the wild bear.

Saints Sergius and Benedict also lead their monastic communities in different ways. Generally speaking, St. Benedict was an institutional leader who focused on enforcing law and order, and St. Sergius was a transformational leader who lead through both example and personal charisma. We must be wary of oversimplifying: St. Benedict was very charismatic, and St. Sergius introduced a strict rule for his monastery. We can still say that each saint had a particular tendency.

St. Benedict’s first experience as a leader came when a group of monks begged him to leave his hermitage and become their abbot. He relented, but he implemented strict policies which irritated the monks, who by that time had grown accustomed to laxity. They regretted choosing Benedict as their abbot and decided to kill him with a poisoned flask of wine. At dinner, they placed the tainted flask in front of their (soon-to-be former) abbot, but when the saint made the sign of the cross over it, the flask broke apart, as if it were hit by a stone. Benedict then rebuked his would-be murderers and left them in peace.

St. Benedict then established twelve monasteries, each featuring twelve monks and an abbot. He also built a monastery for himself on a mountain formerly used for pagan worship. There, he created the spiritual regulations which would be later codified into the Rule of St. Benedict. In the Rule, Benedict addresses his monks as a kind father:
“Listen, my son, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from Whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.” 
The Rule of Benedict is summed up in the motto Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work). The monastic schedule was divided between work, prayer, and spiritual study. The abbot provided everything necessary, and monks could not own any property, including personal objects. For example, St. Benedict once beheld through clairvoyance a monk that took some handkerchiefs from some nuns whom he was visiting. The saint then upbraided the monk, who by that time had forgotten that he even had the forbidden items on his person. There are many similar scenes in St. Benedict’s hagiography in which the saint clairvoyantly sees a monk break a rule. The saint then rebukes the erring brother and gives him a penance. Thus, the saint’s charismatic gift is used to strictly enforce the order of the monastery.

St. Sergius also clairvoyantly saw the wrongdoing of others, and he once rebuked a messenger for secretly eating some of the food he was delivering to the monastery. For the most part, however, Sergius chose to lead through his own personal example. When fellow ascetics began to live around the hermit and form a brotherhood, St. Sergius got to work serving them, and his hagiography describes him as being like “a slave who was bought by them.” He cut the wood, ground the flour, cooked the meals, and worked with the strength of many men for the sake of his brotherhood. Although it was in his right to become the leader of the community, he asked his old spiritual father, Mitrophan, to become their abbot. It was only after Mitrofan’s death that Sergius was willing to take upon himself the role of hegumen. Even as the abbot, Sergius never ceased from his labors. During a famine, when there was hardly any bread left in the monastery, the saint discouraged his brethren from begging, but to rely on God to provide them with sustenance. He himself went to one of the other monks, named Daniel, and offered to build him an entrance hall for his cell in exchange for a bowl of moldy bread. He worked from morning until night and refused to even taste a morsel of his wages until he was finished. Sergius was the consummate servant-leader, so much so that at least one pilgrim, upon seeing him, refused to believe that this poor monk, standing in front of them in ragged clothes, was the great Abbot Sergius! Nevertheless, St. Sergius, as we have mentioned, implemented a cenobitic rule in his monastery, after some prompting from Metropolitan Alexis of Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarch himself, Philotheos Kokkinos. This rule was based on strict obedience to the abbot, common prayer, and manual labor—something very much akin to the spirit of Ora et Labora that we find in St. Benedict’s Rule! Moreover, by Benedictine standards, St. Sergius would be a very good abbot. In the second chapter, we read:
“...when anyone receives the name of abbot, he should govern his disciples with a twofold teaching. That is to say, he should show them all that is good and holy by his deeds even more than his words, expounding the Lord’s commandments in his words to the intelligent among his disciples, but demonstrating the divine precepts by his actions for those of harder hearts and ruder minds.”
The most significant difference between the venerable fathers was in how they interacted with the secular authorities. This was mainly conditioned by each saint’s historical context. St. Benedict was born four years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. All his life, he was under the rule of barbarians who claimed fealty to the Emperor in Constantinople but in reality ruled in their own right. Roman institutions and ways of life continued, but the Ostrogothic kings of Italy were Arians, hostile to the Orthodox faith. St. Benedict confronted the Ostrogothic leaders several times and overcame them through his spiritual strength. Once, Totila, their king, attempted to trick the holy man by disguising his sword-bearer in his royal robes. The saint, as expected, saw right through this subterfuge. The awestruck king came and prostrated himself before the saint. Benedict rebuked him for his mistreatment, and predicted his eventual defeat. Benedict made no mention of the Orthodox emperor who would defeat Totila—Justinian—and seems to have been generally indifferent to politics. He saw his ideal society, as it were, within the walls of the cloister. A monastery, according to Benedict, “should be so established that all the necessary things, such as water, mill, garden and various workshops, may be within the enclosure, so that there is no necessity for the monks to go about outside it, since that is not at all profitable for their souls.”

St. Sergius, who had implemented the Studite cenobitic rule in his monastery, would have agreed with St. Benedict. On the other hand, St. Sergius also had a high level of involvement in the establishment of Muscovite Russia. Unlike Benedict, his rulers were Orthodox Christians. Although the invading Tatars forced the Russian princes to kowtow to them, the Tatar khan let the princes handle their own internal affairs. With the princes and the leaders of the Church being able to work relatively freely, they eventually grew strong enough to throw off the Tatar yoke, although this took centuries.

Sergius is well-known for blessing Prince Dimitry of Moscow to fight Khan Mamay in 1380. The saint also used his spiritual authority to benefit Moscow in several other ways. First, in the year 1365, Sergius acted as an agent of Metropolitan Alexis of Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod. The prince there, Boris, resisted the authority of the prince of Moscow and was friendly to the Lithuanians. Sergius placed an interdict upon the city, something common in the medieval West. This meant that all the churches in the city were shut down. As a result, Boris was forced into submission and yielded. Sergius also served as an ambassador and brokered a peace between Oleg of Ryazan and Prince Dimitry, who were bitter enemies. Through the holy man’s gentle words, Oleg was convinced to make peace with Moscow and even marry his son to Dimitry’s daughter. It was precisely because this holy man was so highly regarded that he was entrusted with such diplomatic missions. However, Sergius was not a politician. For the most part he stayed in his monastery and put his trust in God rather than in the sons of men. Nevertheless, because of his reputation, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity gained many secular patrons, and became a place of pilgrimage and burial for the Russian tsars.

Saints Benedict and Sergius may have had different conceptions of the monastic life, but as saints, they were each enlightened by the same Holy Spirit. They both mystical experiences involving an awesome vision of divine light.

Benedict received his vision while praying in the middle of the night. According to St. Gregory, he “beheld a flood of light shining down from above more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away.” The saint then saw the entire world enveloped in a single beam of light, and the soul of a bishop he knew being carried up to heaven. Benedict cried out to his guest, the deacon Servandus, who came up in time to see the last of the vision. St. Gregory, in explaining the vision, states: “All creation is bound to appear small to a soul that sees the Creator. Once it beholds a little of His light, it finds all creatures small indeed.” St. Benedict’s vision of light presented a theological problem for Western theologians, who equated seeing God with seeing the divine essence. St. Gregory himself taught in his Homilies on Ezekiel that no mortal man could ever see God in Himself: “...with whatever effort the human mind strains...while placed in mortal flesh [it] is not able to see the glory of God as it is. But whatever of that is which shines in the mind, is a likeness, and not itself.” St. Augustine thought that God could be seen in this life, but it required a kind of ecstatic state in which the mind is practically separated from the body. Based on this teaching, the Latin theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that St. Benedict could not have seen God because he was not in a full ecstasy, but was aware enough of his surroundings to be able to call out to Servandus. It was not a vision of God Himself, but “a light derived from God.”

St. Sergius also had visions of the divine light. While praying in the dead of night, the saint heard a voice call out his name. Surprised, he looked out his window and saw that “a great light appeared from heaven and drove away all darkness of the night, and the night was illumined by this light which excelled by its brightness the light of day.” The saint then saw a vision of a flock of many beautiful birds, and a voice from heaven said to him, “As you saw these birds, in a like manner the flock of your disciples will be multiplied and even after you they will not diminish if they choose to follow in your footsteps.”

Sergius had a second vision of light which accompanied a visitation by the Mother of God. After the saint finished his prayer rule in front of the Icon of the Virgin, he told his disciple Mikhei: “My child, be temperate and vigilant, for there will be to us a wonderful and awesome visit right now.” At once, light filled the place where they were standing, and the Virgin appeared to them alongside the Apostles Peter and John. The Mother of God spoke to St. Sergius, and assured him that his monastery would always be under her protection.

In Orthodox theology, these visions of light experienced by both saints are not a likeness or simulacrum of the divine light, but were a foretaste of the glory of God in which both saints now dwell. Orthodox theologians would agree with Aquinas that St. Benedict did not see the divine essence—and in fact, we believe that no creature can—but would affirm that he did see God through His energies. St. Gregory Palamas, who defended the doctrine of uncreated light and the distinction between essence and energies, was a contemporary of St. Sergius, but we are not certain whether he knew of the hesychast controversies, but we know that he participated in the same ascetic tradition of the hesychasts, whose roots can be traced to the most ancient fathers and, indeed, Holy Scripture itself—the same roots from which St. Benedict drew his inspiration. As for St. Benedict, St. Gregory mentions him in his work in defense of hesychasm, The Triads,  as an example of someone who experienced the uncreated light.

Despite some differences in ascetic practice, monastic governance, and interaction with the outside world, Sts. Benedict and Sergius were both inspired by the same gospel and lived the same faith. This is why was held up as an example by the monks of St. Sergius’ time, and why we should also look to him as an example like that of St. Sergius. I will close this paper with his troparion:

By thine ascetical struggles, O Godbearing Benedict, thou didst prove true to thy name. For thou wast the son of benediction, and didst become a model and rule to all who emulate thy life and cry: Glory to Him Who has strengthened thee; glory to Him Who has crowned thee; glory to Him Who through thee works healings for all.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What is a Metropolitan?

What do we think of when we hear the word “metropolitan”? Besides an opera house and a pretty good movie, we think of a rank of bishop. In the Russian tradition, he wears a white hat. Has some kind of authority.

In fact, the role of the metropolitan is a very ancient one which predates the existence of patriarchates. The metropolitan was the bishop of the capital of a Roman province (a metropolis). The bishop of the metropolis is seen as first among equals, since, according to Canon IX of the Council of Antioch, “all men of business come together from every quarter to the metropolis.”

Let’s pretend that America is an Orthodox country and that the Church is organized like it was in the fourth century. The Church in America would be more or less divided according to political subdivisions. Thus, each state would have its own metropolitan. Of course, perhaps some sees, due to ancient custom, have authority over other provinces, as did Rome and Alexandria. Thus, maybe the Metropolitan of Boston had authority over the entirety of New England. For the most part, however, each state would be a independent and autocephalous ecclesiastical province. Let’s take New York for an example, and assume that the Metropolis is actually New York City (instead of Albany).

The various counties/diocese of our theoretical Metropolia of New York
How would bishops be chosen?

According to Canon IV of the First Ecumenical Council, all the bishops in a province should get together to appoint a new bishop, but if that is impossible due to circumstances, three bishops should come to consecrate the new bishop, and the other bishops give their assent in writing. So, if there needed to be a new bishop of Herkimer, at least three bishops (e.g. Utica, Rochester, Oneonta) would have to come to consecrate the new bishop. Moreover, the a bishop is only consecrated with the ratification of the metropolitan. Incidentally, according to Fr. John Erickson, this means that for any part of the Church to be autocephalous it needs to have at least four dioceses.

This is a marked contrast with how bishops are appointed today in the Roman Catholic Church, which reserves the appointment or confirmation of bishops to the Pope, with the local metropolitan having a merely advisory role: “The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints Bishops or confirms those lawfully elected (Can. 377 §1, 1983).” The same applies to Eastern Catholic churches (Canon 182, CCEO).

Relationship of the Metropolitan and the Diocesan Bishops

The relationship between the metropolitan bishops and the other bishops of a province is enshrined in Apostolic Canon 34, which states:
The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.
The word “nation” (ἔθνος) here is interpreted as meaning “province” (ἐπαρχία) by canonists.

The metropolitan is not an absolute monarch but a primus inter pares. If a metropolitan becomes a heretic he has no authority (Canon 1, Council of Ephesus). However, the bishops cannot “go rogue” and act independently; they are obliged to act in one accord with the metropolitan and their fellow bishops. If there is a disagreement between the bishop and his metropolitan, the bishop can appeal to the Patriarch of Constantinople (Canon 9, Fourth Ecumenical Council).

According to the canons the bishops of the province also need to meet twice a year, and this synod is presided over by the metropolitan.

Titular Metropolitans

Sometimes a province would be split in two (like West Virginia split off from Virginia during the Civil War). The bishop of the new metropolis has the rank of metropolitan but not the authority, the original metropolitan retaining his rights (Canon 12, Fourth Ecumenical Council).

Relationship of Provinces with Each Other

According to the second canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, each province was independent of the others:
The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches; but let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nice, being preserved; and let the bishops of the Asian Diocese administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic bishops only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops only Thracian affairs.
On the other hand, if a metropolitan becomes a heretic he is subject to neighboring Orthodox metropolitans and his own bishops, who will deprive him of episcopal rank (Canon 1, Council of Ephesus).

Rise of Patriarchates

The authority of metropolitans was severely curtailed after the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which subordinated the metropolitans of Asia, Pontus, and Thrace to the Patriarch of Constantinople (Canon 28), and set up the Pentarchy (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) which lasted up until the Schism of 1054. Moreover, title inflation resulted in many titular metropolitans. Metropolitans still retain authority, especially in autonomous or semi-autonomous hierarchies such as in ROCOR.

Monday, March 16, 2015

John’s Guide to Seminary Life: What to Bring

Congratulations! You got into seminary! If you already went to college and experienced dorm life, you have a good idea of what to bring, but if (like many new seminarians these days) you’re fresh out of high school or never experienced dorm life, here is a guide for you:

First of all, be advised that your rooms are going to be relatively small, and moreover you’re going to naturally accumulate more stuff over the years. Pack no more than a couple of boxes.

1. Books

Nearly all the rooms are equipped with three-tier bookshelves, so you can bring a few books. I’ll give book recommendations in a subsequent post.

2. Clothing

It gets very cold in the winter and hot and humid in the summer. You need to layer appropriately. Here’s a basic starter list:
  • a few t-shirts and pairs of underwear
  • 2-3 nice collared shirts
  • 2-3 pairs of pants (dark colors)
  • 2-3 dress shirts
  • at least one matching tie and a sport coat/blazer (for those times you want to impress your future matushka)
  • a cassock, or if you can afford it, two cassocks: one made of wool for colder months and one of cotton for warm weather
  • an overcoat or jacket
  • winter hat, scarf, gloves
  • several pairs of shoes, black
3. School supplies

4. Food supplies, etc.
  • A small refrigerator. There is a common refrigerator in the kitchenette, but it is better and more convenient to store your food items in your own mini-fridge. 
  • Snacks, tea, etc. This is good for when you have friends in your room, so you can offer them something to eat or drink. Hospitality is a good virtue to cultivate in dorm life.
5. Electronics, etc. We have wi-fi, so bring your laptop. Don’t forget to bring a camera to capture all of those precious moments.

6. Basic medical supplies: band-aids, pain relief, etc.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Homily for the Meeting of the Lord and the Sunday of the Last Judgment

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

Dear brothers and sisters, one of the wonderful aspects of the liturgy is timelessness. Normally we think of time as like a line: past, present, and future. The past is consigned to oblivion and we hope or worry for the future. However, in the Church, in Christ, the divisions of time are overcome, and the past, present, and future come to dwell in one another, not as a closed circle, but morel ike an endlessly ascending spiral. Today both the past and the present come to us in the celebrations of the Meeting of the Lord and the Sunday of the Last Judgment. We are celebrating two meetings of the Lord: one in Jerusalem two millennia ago, and one at the end of time.

Let us first go to Jerusalem, to see with the eyes of faith what happened there. The temple is full of crowds coming and going, unaware that One who is greater than the temple is present. Christ was brought to the temple in accordance with the divine command to Moses: “Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is Mine.” His holy Mother also presented two turtle-doves in order to purify herself, for the Law of Moses also stated that a woman is considered ritually impure for forty days after giving birth. Thus, this feast is often called the “Purification of the Virgin,” which is why we are wearing blue vestments.

Although the Child and His Mother followed the Law, they did not have to submit themselves to it. Just as the Son out of His own free will humbled Himself and took the form of a man, He also submitted Himself to the Law which He Himself had issued. As for the Mother, she conceived and gave birth to her Son in a miraculous way, through the Holy Spirit, and had no need for purification. Tradition tells us that the High Priest, sensing the purity of the Theotokos, put her in the court reserved for virgins, which enraged the Pharisees.

At the Temple, there was a holy elder named Simeon who knew that this little infant was indeed the Christ, the Lord of all. He took up the child into his frail arms, and said: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

There came another woman, a prophetess named Anna, who stayed in the Temple and prayed to God night and day. She also recognized the Christ-child, and preached of Him to everyone in earshot. Why were these two, Simeon and Anna, able to recognize Christ? It was through the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who was with Simeon, and which told Him that he would not see death until he saw the Christ. Simeon waited patiently, faithfully, never losing hope that he would see the promised Messiah. Likewise, the prophetess Anna also had the Holy Spirit and prayed constantly. Without the Holy Spirit, we fail to recognize Christ and become like the Pharisees, who were so blind that they could not acknowledge the miracles of Christ as the work of the Spirit and instead said it was the work of the devil.

When Simeon blessed the Mother of God, he told her: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” This prophecy was partially fulfilled in the Crucifixion of Christ, which indeed pierced the heart of His Mother. Moreover, this prophecy will be fully fulfilled at the Second Coming. Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and the thoughts and deeds of all will be revealed.

Thus, coming from Jerusalem, let us now stand with fear and trembling at the Dread Judgment Seat. A hymn from yesterday evening’s Vespers tells us: “The trumpet shall sound and the graves be opened: all mankind will arise in trembling; the righteous will rejoice, as they receive their reward, but the wicked will depart to eternal fire with wailing and horror.”

And as we stand before the Judge, what will He say to us? In today’s Gospel, the Lord presents a parable which describes the Last Judgment. To the righteous He will say: “I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in . . .” When asked by the righteous where and how He was fed, and given drink, the Son of Man answers: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” The unrighteous, on the other hand, did the opposite, thus Christ says to them: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels . . . Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

My brothers and sisters, the image of Christ is not only seen in the Holy Icons, for we—human beings—are all created according to His Image. In this church we rightly venerate the holy icons, which are made of wood and paint. We should also venerate the living icons of Christ, especially the poor, for Christ was born and lived in poverty. Rich or poor, great or humble, nice or annoying—we are all cut from the same cloth and go to the same end. Why, then, do we complain about each other, do evil to one another, or fail to recognize the divine image in one another?

During the Great Fast, let us also, alongside prayer and fasting, do good to one other, and overcome the divisions between us. Through loving our neighbor we will rejoice and reign forever with Christ the Lord, Who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is due all honor, glory, and dominion, unto the ages of ages.