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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Early Monastics (Today in Class)

Today in Patrology class, we discussed monasticism in the early centuries of the Church, focusing on St. Anthony the Great and St. Ammon.

St. Anthony (ca. 251 – 356) was born in Egypt, and he and St. Ammon are considered the fathers of Egyptian monasticism. Although ascetic practice is as old as the Church, St. Anthony is regarded as the first prominent monk. His life was written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, also known for the work On the Incarnation.

As a young person, St. Anthony loved attending church services and hearing the Scriptures; although he could not read or write, he knew the Scriptures by heart. While in church, he heard the words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). He left his sister in the care of a group of Virgins (like proto-nuns) and became an ascetic.

At first he was under the tutelage of a hermit, but around 285, he moved to the banks of the Nile, and found a tower half in ruins, where he took up cloistered residence for twenty years. Soon enough, people sought him out for spiritual counsel. At the end of twenty years, he finally left his enclosure. They expected to see some kind of emaciated mummy, but amazingly enough, his physical appearance was perfectly healthy, neither fat nor thin. He passed through the crowds as if no one was there, focused completely on God.

While cloistered, St. Anthony faced great temptations, including being actually physically accosted by demons. After this attack, the saint saw a vision of heaven, and asked God, “Where were You?” and the answer came: “I was here but I would see and abide to see thy battle, and because thou hast manly fought and well maintained thy battle, I shall make thy name to be spread through all the world.” This incident has been famously depicted in numerous scary-looking paintings which I don’t feel like posting on this blog; you can Google them yourselves!

In 311, St. Anthony left the desert and went to Alexandria, one of two times when he left seclusion. He visited the Christians (still being persecuted) in prison, and himself sought martyrdom, but he did not receive the crown of martyrdom, and returned to the desert.

He did not organize a monastery, but there he had many, many disciples who lived around him. He and his disciples engaged in both manual work and prayer, “Ora et Labora,” so to speak. The most common form of manual labor was weaving baskets, mats and the like out of rushes.

In 338, he went again, this time to a Christian Alexandria, in order to confront the menace of Arianism. Despite his lack of formal education he was able through his spiritual authority and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures to refute the Arians and confirm the Orthodox in their faith. When the local governor sought him to stay in the city longer, St. Anthony answered, “Fish die if they are taken from the water; so does a monk wither away if he forsakes his solitude.”

He died around 356, at the age of 105. His many disciples contributed to the flourishing of monasticism in the Egyptian desert and the world.

The words of St. Anthony are full of practical wisdom. As Christians we need to strive to know ourselves; from there we will be able to know the virtues, which are the kingdom of God inside our hearts. Love for God comes from keeping ourselves from unclean thoughts, which come through constant inner vigilance. The main goal in life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The characteristics of his teachings are asceticism (forming the soul), morality, and some dogma (against Arianism). Compared to other Fathers, St. Anthony is quite easy to read. He did not make up a monastic rule like St. Benedict, but he did speak much about the monastic spirit. For an example of his teaching, please see his Thirty-Eight Sayings, found in the most popular collection of the sayings of the Desert Fathers.

St. Ammon (or Ammoun) was a contemporary/disciple of St. Anthony. When he married his wife (out of pressure from his uncle), they lived as brother and sister, and later separated to each life the monastic life. He lived in the desert of Nitria, where he established a monastery known as Kellia (The Cells). It was not like modern cenobitic monasteries, but the cells were placed far apart from each other, and the monks only gathered for common meals on Saturday and Sunday, as well as the common prayer, known as the Synaxis.

We have fourteen surviving letters of Abba* Ammon, which focused on moral asceticism. He stressed the importance of obtaining and maintaining the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to share with the people around you. By the gifts of the Holy Spirit he did not mean what televangelists mean today, but as St. Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23). These gifts of the Holy Spirit are obtained by giving yourself entirely over to God. We also need to love our neighbor, which begins with not holding evil in our hearts, but letting it go. Asceticism is not crushing the body, but making the body work for God.

*Abba, from the Aramaic אבא, meaning father, is commonly applied to the Desert Fathers, eg. Abba Anthony, Abba Moses, etc.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Divorce in Canon Law (Today in Class)

The All-Russian Council of 1917–1918, presided by St. Tikhon of Moscow

This is the first in a new blog post series called “Today in Class,” which will be an overview of what I learned today in class. This is a way for me to reorganize my class notes into a coherent form to share with the world.

Today in Canon Law class, we briefly went over our assigned readings, which was about what a canon was, various different collections of church canons, and important canonists.

A canon (Gk. κανών) is not like a civil law, but is more like a rule or standard which is interpreted and applied by the bishops of the Orthodox Church. There are canons applicable to only one local church (Russian, Greek, Antiochian, etc.) and canons applicable to the entire Church. These canons are basically those which have been accepted by the Seven Ecumenical Councils, both the canons formulated at the councils, and those canons of local councils which were accepted by the Council Fathers, thus granting them ecumenical status. All of these canons were put together in various compilations. The earliest we know of is the Nomocanon in 14 Chapters attributed to St. Photius the Great (9th c.). A Nomocanon is a collection of both canons and (Byzantine) civil law (nomoi). In the English-speaking world, the most famous collection of canons is The Rudder or Pedalion of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (18th c.).

In the second hour of the class, a visiting scholar from Finland discussed the change in divorce law in the Russian Orthodox Church as a result of the very important All-Russian Church Council of 1917–1918. Before, divorce was only allowed in both civil and church law under four specific cases. The Council expanded these guidelines, which are followed in our own Church Abroad. Although it was a local council which decided marriage laws, the same guidelines are generally followed in other churches.

Conservative Roman Catholics, who believe that a valid sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved in any way, would be scandalized by the Orthodox view on divorce and remarriage. However, the Orthodox view has always been that there are legitimate reasons for the dissolution of a marriage. As our Pastoral Theology instructor put it, “the Church is not giving a divorce, but acknowledging that the marriage has dissolved.” Nonetheless, the Church by no means supports divorce and remarriage, seeing them as deviations from the Gospel ideal which are only allowed out of condescension. The Church “blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth.”

Also discussed at the All-Russian Council was the question of the remarriage of priests. In the Russian Church at the time, there were many widowed young priests who wanted to remarry. Normally a priest who is widowed has to either leave the priesthood if he wanted to remarry or else become a monk. The vast majority of the widowed priests at the time were in favor of changing the laws. The canonists were also divided on the issue. The Serbian bishop Nikodim Milaš supported a more liberal view, whereas the Russian canonist S. Troitsky favored the strict view. Ultimately, priests were not allowed to remarry based on the scriptures (I Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6) and precedence of the canons. However, the council made provisions to try to help widowed priests in difficult situations because of their status.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Four states in four days

Today I would like to congratulate you all with the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity, especially the parishioners of the parish in Albany which is celebrating its patronal feast day.

It’s been a while since my last post, which recounted Holy Saturday, with a promise of Paschal joy; sadly, I never managed to get around to it! Since then, much has happened. Fourth year ended, I went to San Francisco to seek my fortune, and I managed to get a decent summer job in the city. I came back to Jordanville several weeks before the beginning of the school year. My last year.

The Thursday before the school year started, I took a trip down to Lakewood, New Jersey for the feast day of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. In addition, it was the official retirement celebration for Protopresbyter Valery Lukianov and the opening of the new Diocesan Center for the Eastern American Diocese.

I drove down with Fr. Ephraim, who was going there both to sing and to act as representative for the Seminary. He said that he had to make a speech for the banquet accepting the St. Alexander Nevsky Scholarship.

“Oh…so, who’s getting the scholarship?” I nonchalantly asked.

“Well, you are,” he said. It was quite an unexpected relief, especially since I would have otherwise had to use my summer money to pay for tuition! In addition, I am merely one of the many recipients of the scholarship. Apparently, the organizers of the scholarship are planning to expand it to help out up to twenty seminarians each year, so hopefully this will allow for more to come to the seminary.

We managed to get to the church in time to practice a little for the vigil. The choir director was the formidable Maestro Vladimir Gorbik. Although he was very strict with us, the high caliber of the singers allowed us to proceed at a quicker pace. For my part, I barely managed to hang on!

Vigil was long and festive. After vigil, Fr. Ephraim and I tried to find a place to eat, but it was already ten and many places were closed. We settled on Applebee’s, not known for its Lenten food. We ordered onion rings, fried shrimp, and other heavy food. I don’t recommend going to Applebee’s on a fasting day. After dinner, we went to our lodgings. Our host was a long-time parishioner, a very friendly and hospitable woman, who gave us an impromptu tour of her curio-filled house.

On Friday, the next morning, we drove to church, which took longer than usual because apparently Lakewood is infamous for its bad drivers. There’s even a popular bumper sticker which says “Pray for me—I drive in Lakewood.” Nonetheless, we managed to make it to the church on time.

Liturgy happened, followed by long announcements and awards, and then a cross procession round the church. By the time we had the banquet it was already two o’clock. I was a little worried, because I was planning on meeting Sophia in Albany; we were to go to Massachusetts for the weekend. When all was said and done, it was almost five when we got back on the road. Fr. Ephraim dropped me off in Albany at half past eight, where I met a long-suffering Sophia, who had spent the past few hours in Albany going stir-crazy.

“I hadn’t gone stir-crazy! I helped out at the church, listened to podcasts, and stretched,” said Sophia, who is currently sitting next to me while I type out this blog post.

Sophia and I went to Massachusetts in her grey Honda Odyssey (the “mom van” as she calls it) and arrived in Springfield, where gracious Matushka was awaiting us at Fr. Brendan Crowley’s.

On Saturday, we went to Amherst and Northampton, north of Springfield, where the knuckle-shaped mountains of the Pioneer Valley protruded from the horizon. We also went shopping for a sweater, because I was chilly. After scouring the Salvation Army racks and finding only badly-fitting, ugly sweaters, Sophia settled on a few gardening books, and was standing in line for the cashier when she spotted a brand-new grey sweater, with the sticker still on it, hanging practically in front of her. It was my size! I immediately accepted this turn of fate.

That evening, we went to St. Nicholas Church for vigil. Though the parish is said to be based in the Springfield, MA area, its new physical location happens to be across the state line in Enfield, CT. After a half-century of having their church life centered in a former store building with a spooky basement (and a pretty flower garden), the parishioners at St. Nicholas prayed and raised enough money to relocate to a newer building. Because she had been farming in Central New York all summer, this was Sophia's first visit to her childhood parish's new home.

After the morning liturgy, we joined in for coffee hour, where the parishioners had realized that the new building’s kitchen was adjacent to the yard and that food could be simply passed out through the window. Sophia and I then went to meet up with her parents, and we had a delightful time munching on Chinese food and visiting Forest Park, which had a lot of stuff in it.

Sophia: “No!!! There’s a zoo and waterfalls and ducks, and—”

Me: “A lot of stuff.”

Sophia: “Imagine if I was in Hawaii and I wrote a blog entry saying there was a lot of stuff there!”

Thus, I had been in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut over the course of four days. I am very grateful for the kind hospitality, not to mention the convivial company I enjoyed.