Thursday, December 30, 2010

Orthodox Elders (Youtube Playlist)

I spent some time searching for videos of Orthodox elders in English. Greek, Romanian, and Serbian elders are represented here. I haven't found any Russian elders on Youtube, but I'll add them when they come available.

I also include a 5-part documentary on the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Special Report: St. Herman's Youth Conference 2010

Last weekend, 150 young people of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad descended on Holy Trinity Monastery for the annual St. Herman's Youth Conference (or, as we just call it, Syezd). I was on official assignment at the conference as one of the English correspondents; our collaborative efforts resulted in this (partially complete) news update. Since all the main details (and lots of pictures) from the conference are on the Seminary website, I'll give my inside perspective on what went down at the conference.

I went to last year's conference in Methuen, but I had a rough night staying at the hotel and was surrounded by unfamiliar faces; I ended up leaving early. So, I was pretty stoked for this year's conference, especially since I didn't have to go anywhere.

There wasn't much social interaction on Friday, which was dominated mainly by eating supper and going to Matins for St. Herman. At dinner, we had the usual trapeza fare, which was (no offense to the cook) a little disappointing, somewhat like having turkey sandwiches on Thanksgiving. However, later on I tagged along with Ephraim and went to the hotel, where they had very, very delicious cookies baked by Natalia.

The morning liturgy was very nice, and it was a pleasure hearing so many young voices fill our church. After the liturgy, Vladika Gabriel gave a short welcome address to all of us, including the immortal lines: “There are 150 of you, and I hope to see 75 marriages.”

Lunch was provided by the conference, and it was pretty good and Chinese-y. Then we met in the seminary hall, where Fr. Seraphim Gan gave a great lecture on the symbolism of the wedding ceremony, using two volunteers (who happened to be related). In the course of the presentation, he suddenly whirled around and pointed to the first seminarian he could see: me.

Fr. Seraphim: “What does a ring symbolize?”
Me: (deer-in-headlights look) “Uhhhhhhhhhh ETERNITY!!!!”
Fr. Seraphim: “Yes!!!”

Dodged a bullet there.

Later on, when it was time for discussions, I had to sneak out with Anthony to write up the latest update for the website. Coming back, I kind of floated around the discussion groups, stopping at one when I randomly heard the words: “This guy had his thumb bit off in a fight…”

On Sunday, we used the Liturgy of St. James*, which was very different from the liturgies we use today. The first thing I noticed was the deacons facing the people while doing the litanies, perhaps a leftover from the congregational singing of ancient times. Vladika was dressed in a phelonion and omophorion, making him look like an ancient bishop. Apparently, the altar was pretty chaotic, but I'm sure that hardly anyone really noticed.

After the lectures, we had free time. I was being pulled in multiple directions, because I had to both man the book kiosk and write updates. But, I managed to make it to the Face in the Snow competition being held outside.

The rules of the competition are simple. No hats or gloves. Pious girls can wear a headscarf. Put your face and hands in the snow. Last one to get up wins. I felt that I had to represent Hawaii, and was one of the first to raise my hand to volunteer. I lasted for about a minute, the others, for nearly six. It took a while for the feeling to return to my fingers.

Later, we hopped in cars and went to Cooperstown for some Christmas caroling (half-price because it was the day after Western Christmas). Gathering in a warm coffee shop, I made some new friends, and sipped hot cider.

That night, we hung out at the hotel, where we played a great many party games, my favorite being Silent Ninja. The Russians taught us some Greek dancing, and we also did some other activities designed to tire us out.

We had the usual sandwich of lecture-discussion-lecture, but before that we had a tour of the monastery, meeting in the seminary hall. On the way, I took some people down through the not-so-creepy basement. It was only later on that I found out that girls weren't allowed down there. Oops! After the tour, we met again in the hall, where Fr. Roman gave a really interesting talk about how his spiritual father, Archimandrite Cyprian the iconographer, would chew him out over his choice of music, among other things.

I was rushing around before the banquet in a mad dash to wrap some presents for friends. I went, presents and all, to the Radisson. After having the usual hotel fare, we were treated to three hours of talent show. Some acts were good, some were really, really good, and some left me scratching my head. One of my favorite acts was the rendition of “Traveling Soldier” by Jojo and Daria, as well as Misha's creative recital of “Jabberwocky.” I was also drafted at the last minute to do “Wagon Wheel” with Anthony and Sergei.

The last act was a send-up of “Amen,” which appeared in the film “Lilies of the Field,” entitled “Amin.” Three seminarians (and one graduate) came up and sang some great verses, including:

Eating more potatoes (Amin)
Gotta find a bigger belt (Amin!)
Gonna be a deacon! (Amin! Amin! Amen!)

The next day, as I was walking to the Computer Lab to complete one of my papers, I noticed a little reminder of the good times we had, and composed this post-Syezd haiku:

An empty courtyard.
Traces remain in the snow
Of faces and hands.

All in all, this year's Syezd was really memorable, and it felt like a pilgrimage as well, owing to its location. I am very glad to have made new friends, and am looking forward to next year in Ottawa (God willing) so I can see you all!

*Usually done only on the feast of St. James (October 23). Because of all the preparation needed to do this liturgy, it was postponed until the Syezd.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It's the most (?!?) wonderful time of the year.

The (outdated) Schedule of Exams.

The second half of December is set aside for final exams. The schedule presents no big surprises: almost all the finals begin at 9 o'clock in the morning.* All the seminarians gather in the seminary hall and sit in order of seniority: the first-years on the far right, and the fifth-years on the far left. After singing “O Heavenly King,” the watchful proctors then distribute our exams, which we are given three hours to complete.

Exams can be a stressful time, especially for seminarians taking advanced subjects. However, we only have exams on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Moreover, we are freed for the most part from our regular obediences and other obligations that would hinder our study time. Thus, we actually end up with a lot of free time on our hands. This can be either a good or a bad thing. It seems that it has increased the number of posts on this blog!

As of this writing, I have completed all but one of my exams, though I have two term papers to complete. Soon, my thoughts will be turning to other things–to the upcoming St. Herman's Conference, and to a visit out West!

*Classes which have a mix of students from different years have exams in the afternoon.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Вечная память: Archimandrite Joasaph (McLellan)

Fr. Joasaph (then Reader Joseph) at the Summer School of Liturgical Music.

Today marks the first anniversary of the repose of Archimandrite Joasaph McLellan, the former head of the Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem. Fr. Joasaph graduated from Jordanville in the 80s, and then went on to graduate studies at Brown University, becoming an expert in Church Slavonic (and singing in an a capella group). He then had a successful academic career, while at the same time teaching at the Summer School for Liturgical Music. Later in life he was tonsured a monk, made an archimandrite, and sent to Jerusalem. Soon, however, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, which he endured for a brief time before falling asleep in the Lord.

I knew Fr. Joasaph from taking his classes in Church Slavonic and Typikon at the Summer School. Fr. Joasaph was a very good teacher, and I consider his influence and example one of the major reasons why I am studying here at Jordanville. May his memory be eternal!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Free Stuff I Found (1)

I've developed a knack for finding stuff on the Free Table. For example, I found this navy pea coat about a month ago; it keeps me toasty warm.

About a week ago, Fr. Cyprian (our dorm inspector) ordered that the attic be cleaned out, and that everything piling up in it should be divided among the students. There were quite a few books, including this Medieval art book. However, this was nothing compared to what my classmate found: an entire encyclopedia set!

However, I think my favorite find (again from the attic) are these leather boots, which I believe are actually Russian military boots. I tested them out in church, and they turned out to be very comfortable, providing even support for my feet. And my posture's improved as well! All these need are a little touch-up, and they'll be good as new.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thanksgiving in Vacationland (3)

Note 1: For the first two days of my trip, I kept a meticulous diary of events. However, for the Maine part of my journey, I had little time to sit down and record what happened. So, what follows is a short account of the rest of my Thanksgiving. Which is good, because we're just a month away from Christmas!
Note 2: Again, for the purpose of maintaining privacy (from Google) I've changed some of the names. Even though, really now, it's pretty obvious who these people are.

Days 3–7: The Last Homely House

“…a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” –Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring

The next morning, we awoke, had breakfast, and engaged in a long and fascinating discussion with Fr. Alexander, which included references to Kurt Gödel, St. Gregory Palamas, and apophatic theology. This conversation induced my brain to engage in morning calisthenics. As the sun passed its high point, we began to begin the process of departing, though this time we did not follow the Russian tradition of sitting on our bags. Fr. Alex led us with his car to the Field where the Shot Heard Round the World was fired, though nowadays it looks quite tranquil.

He then followed us to the Interstate, where we parted ways. Now was the last leg of our journey North. Several hours later, we encountered a sign saying: “Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” Coming from the Aloha State, I was quite skeptical. However, it did not take too long to convince me!

About an hour later we arrived at the Woodlawn homestead. The warmly-lit house, which looked as if blanketed in mist, prompted me to utter: “I feel like I've arrived at Rivendell!”

We entered to a fine welcome, and thus began the first of many moments we shared at that house. There are too many of them to describe them all, but they include:
  • Feeding chickens (and picking one up!)
  • Going on walks and watching for wild turkeys and pheasants
  • Seeing a bald eagle for the first time
  • Watching “Gilligan's Island” with the family
  • Of course, Thanksgiving!
  • Celebrating my namesday (St. John Chrysostom) with my dear friends
  • Attending and singing vigil and liturgy at the parish

Right now, I'm fighting the urge to turn this post into a novel, so I will stop here. This trip may seem somewhat tangential to seminary life, but it just goes to show that as a seminarian, you have the opportunity to meet and befriend many interesting and wonderful people. I am very thankful to the three families with whom I had the pleasure of spending my Thanksgiving vacation, and I look forward to the time when I can meet them again.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Although I've been through a little Winter in Japan, and got a taste of it on the East Coast, I've never really seen icicles, much less these huge things which grow on the sides of our dormitory.

Yesterday, I broke off one of them. Here it is on the kitchen counter, with my hand to show how big it is. Actually, this is more medium-sized.

While I took pictures of the icicles, I also practiced for my Church Music I test this afternoon. Fr. Roman is having us do all of Tone 2.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Monday Morning Photos

Welcome, General Winter, to your new home.

This is the first evening prayer, in Church Slavonic. For my homework, I have to know and recite this by heart. For our final exam, we have to be able to recite from memory a number of church prayers.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thanksgiving in Vacationland (2)

Day 2 - Manhattan to Massachusetts

We awoke the next morning, collected our stuff, and drove North to Manhattan. Our plan was to attend Liturgy at the Synodal Cathedral, because a recent seminary grad, Sergio Silva, was being ordained a deacon.

Parking in Manhattan, even on a Sunday, seems to be very hard to find. Even the paid parking lot that Big Jack frequently uses was full. So, we resorted to appealing to divine intervention. And the heavenly answer was not long in coming–we found a parking space just two blocks away from Synod, right on 5th Avenue next to Central Park.

If one didn't notice the sign saying "Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia" one could easily mistake the building for any common mansion, which it basically was. We entered rather awkwardly through the kliros, which was in an adjoining space next to the nave, which was actually a converted ballroom. We sang with the choir. I was happy to sing with Anatoly Ivanovich Panchoshny, who was my vocal teacher in the music summer school.

After the liturgy, we congratulated Fr. Sergio (who, as of this writing, has just been ordained a priest) and then proceeded to the trapeza, where we sat and listened to speeches about Metropolitan Philaret.

It was soon time to get going, so we went back to the car and put away our podryasniks. Jack taught me a special way to fold a cassock, which will make for a good post. Then, we started walking through Central Park.

It was my first time in Central Park, not to mention Manhattan. I was completely bowled over by the sheer scale of the park, as well as how accommodating it was to all the people walking therein. It was a nice, sunny afternoon, and we got to see all sorts of talented individuals on our walk. There were some black street performers who called themselves the “Afrobats” as well as a very talented young boy who could juggle while riding a unicycle.

It was getting late, so we had to start hitting the road again. Big Jack got invited by a Russian family in Massachusetts, the Donskoys, to have Thanksgiving dinner with them. Jack graciously declined, but asked if we could stay the night. So, we started the four-hour drive. This time, we took the scenic route, making sure the GPS had us avoid toll roads. It turned out to be a rather nice drive. On the way, we listened to Glenn Gould play Bach's French Suites. Pretty soon, we were in Concord.

Fr. and Mrs. Donskoy welcomed us with open arms. Over a steaming hot bowl of chili, Fr. Alex regaled us with various stories, including the tale of how "Silent Night" came to be written in a secluded Alpine town. I was becoming very exhausted, so he lent me his arm to lean on. I took a shower, got ready for bed, and went to sleep a little after 11:30 pm.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanksgiving in Vacationland (1)

Note: In keeping with my personal blogging philosophy, I have changed some of the names to protect the innocent...and the guilty!

Day 1 - Jordanville to JFK

The air was crisp, the day was fine, and I woke up way too early for my own good. I was excited because we were going to embark on an epic road trip across several states along the eastern seaboard. Our final destination was somewhere in Southern Maine, but first we had to go South in order to drop off our friend Tom Woodlawn, who was going to give a presentation on Pushkin somewhere in the frozen side of Europe.

So, we set off: Tom, Big Jack (a fifth-year), and me. We drove five hours, through quaint Upstate New York towns, and into the heart of New York City. The tension level increased accordingly, especially because we were having difficulties finding a place to stay, and it was starting to get dark. I resigned myself to the fate of having to go back to Jordanville, at least for that night. Meanwhile, Big Jack and I dropped off Tom at JFK International, and prayed that he would travel safely, and that they would not make Minsk-meat out of him.

Living on a prayer, we started South, to New Jersey, where a priest-friend of Jack's lived. After some lively back-and-forth before and after we dropped off Tom at the airport, Jack's friend, Fr. Seraphim, got us some accomodations at his parish in Howell. So, about an hour and a half after we dropped off Anthony we arrived at St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

Finally, I thought, time to get some rest! After nearly eight hours of sitting in a car, I was ready to crash. But then, I checked the time: it was six o'clock. Time for Vigil!

We went up to the choir loft of the beautifully-frescoed church, and stood and sang for about two-and-a-half hours, which actually gave some remedy to all the sitting we did. After the Vigil, Fr. Valery, the venerable protopresbyter and rector of the parish, had us do a pannikhida for Metropolitan Philaret, whose 25th anniversary of his repose was the following day.

That night, we ate supper at Fr. Seraphim's, and met his amiable family. His sister-in-law Tanya served us a very delicious meal, and we spent our evening chatting about seminary life. In particular, Tanya told us about some marital advice she recieved from one of our protodeacons:

Tanya: He told me to line up all the guys I'm interested in, and pick the one with the shined shoes.
Jack: But how are you going to line up all those guys?
Me: Call the police!

When it was time for Big Jack and I to rest, we were shown to our guest rooms in the Russian School with some bedding. The first day was eventful, but it was merely the beginning of our saga.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Dear Readers,

I'm going to be out for the next week on an extended holiday for Thanksgiving. I hope that you all have a joyful Thanksgiving, being grateful for all that God has given you.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

3 days. 2 seminarians. 100 books. Gallons of honey.

I went on a book-selling junket last weekend to Mayfield, Pennsylvania. My senior colleague in the bookstore chose me to help him load the van and convince the residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania to unload their wallets. So, we drove three scenic hours south to Mayfield, where St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral was having their annual Christmas Bazaar.

The cathedral is one of the oldest Orthodox parishes in the United States, formed in 1878 by Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants. At first an Eastern Rite Catholic parish, the hostility of local Roman Catholics led to the church's acceptance into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1903. St. John's parishioners helped establish St. Tikhon's Monastery. Since the two monks that founded our monastery were from St. Tikhon's, one could say that St. John's is like Jordanville's spiritual grandfather!

After arriving at the church, we hauled in our goods (mainly books and honey) into the parish hall. Our booth was located right next to a kielbossa [sic] maker's. “Iskushenie [temptation],” I kept saying, as it was a Friday night. The sausage-maker was apparently an old friend of Metropolitan Herman of the OCA, and his business card bore the epithet “The Picasso of Kielbossa.” After the bazaar closed down, we were welcomed by the local parish priest and his son in the parish house, where we feasted on leftovers from that night's dinner and settled down for some R&R.

The next day moved on steadily. I got to sing that evening for Great Vespers in the church. The interior of the parish is quite striking, and reminiscent of 19th century Russian Church interiors. The high ceiling provides perfect acoustics for the choir, which sing very beautifully. After Vespers, I returned to our booth, which my colleague was manning for the both of us. Before we closed shop, we had several interesting theological conversations with a Maronite Catholic concerning the Immaculate Conception and a Pentecostal bathroom remodeling salesman. Apparently, Pentecostal services need to have three, not two or four (five is right out), messages in “tongues”, with interpreters. Glossolalic discussions finished, we returned to the house to rest. Or at least one of us did; my sensitivity to sounds caused me to stay up to early morning, to no little consternation.

On Sunday, we both went to Matins in the morning (what a concept!) and then Divine Liturgy, and sang both services. Although it was a short business day, the presence of parishioners and a sudden attack of gregariousness on our part led to decent sales. As we finally packed up, we were gifted with many, many, boxes of food from the kindly church ladies, who even gave us green beans because we were growing boys. Thus we left with the fleshpots of Mayfield.

Many thanks to all the wonderful people in Mayfield, especially Fr. John Sorochka and his family!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Seminarian: Classes

This part of a seminarian's day is probably one of the most varied, since of course he has different classes each day. For example, I'm able to write this post because I don't have to take English, and thus have free time until 10 am. But, I will try to draw a little sketch of what classes are like.

Our seminary building is two-storied, with a basement. On the first floor is a large hall, used for choir practice, lectures, and the like. On the second floor are the classrooms and offices. The basement is mainly taken up by our library. The second floor has classrooms for each of the years of seminary. We first-years stay in one room basically the entire year, while the teachers move around. The rooms are big enough to fit all of us (and a few more) comfortably, while small enough to prevent anyone from hiding or sleeping.

Here's a selection of our classes:

Russian I: Natch. We have Russian every day, including scheduled Facebook checking independent study hours in the library.
Church Slavonic I: Actually takes up a good deal of my time, since we have to memorize parts of the Small Compline service. Помилуй мя, Боже...
Russian History: A prelude to the Russian Church History classes. Fr. Andrei Psarev leads us through Russian History from Ryurik through Rachmaninoff. Also, there are many interesting side-conversations, mostly involving monastic footwear, coming from one of our more animated classmates.
Patristic Anthropology: Our professor, Fr. George Dragas, a disciple of Fr. George Florovsky and one of the greatest living Orthodox theologians, presents the anthropological view of the Church Fathers, a great deal of which is over my head. Fr. George is rector of a Greek parish in Boston, and a professor of the seminary there, which means he is with us only once a fortnight. I was going to make a reference to My Big Fat Greek Wedding*, but that would be too clichéd.

Most of our class-hours in the first year are devoted to Russian, which I should be studying now. For the next post in this series, I will write about the afternoon.

*They should make more movies with Orthodox people in them, because I'm starting to get tired of references to the Greek origin of the word “kimono.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Forget about it!

I found this little gem in one of my many old (and hopefully forgotten) blogs. Fr. Michael Pomazansky was one of the greatest theologians to have taught at Jordanville. His magnum opus Orthodox Dogmatic Theology is still required reading for seminarians. Fr. Michael reposed several days shy of his hundredth birthday.

Like everything in the world, our human nature is wisely constructed. We are capable of acquiring and preserving knowledge, and we are capable of forgetting. Often even forgetfulness is useful and laudable.

Have you met with failure? Don't be too long in lamenting. Forget it! Chalk it up as a lesson for the future.

You lost something and can't find it? In this transitory world there's nothing eternal. Forget it!

Someone offended you without cause, they hurt your feelings? Don't let your memory hang onto it. Humble yourself; it will be good for you. You have a bad habit? In our souls a constant process of renewal is in effect. Determine to turn away from your bad habit and nature itself will help you to forget it.

Are you troubled or attracted by seductive memories or desires? Join your heart to the words of the prayer: "Guard me, O Lord, from vain thoughts and evil desires"... It will be fulfilled, and you will forget them.

Forgetting what is useless, acquire positive knowledge and preserve it. Don't think: I'll never find that useful. "Give here that bit of rope; even a bit of rope can come in handy" (from Gogol's Inspector General). In the course of your life each item in the storehouse of your memory will prove useful, even if it's only once.

Look ahead. Choose what's best. Think of that moral countenance which you would like to see on yourself in the last decade of your life. You've heard a lot of what is good, and you've read a fair amount. If you're acquainted with Church history, imagine to yourself the images of those people whom you find most attractive and close to your soul by nature. Don't strive to race ahead prematurely.

Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before. (Phil. 3:13)

Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky

Monday, November 1, 2010

Special Report: The Iveron-Hawaii Icon visits Jordanville

Last weekend, a miraculous icon of the Mother of God visited our monastery. This icon, which came from such an unlikely place as Hawaii, began streaming myrrh three years ago. With an ecclesiastical blessing, the icon has been traveling, with its guardian, Reader Nectarios Yangson, to many parishes in North America.

The timing was quite auspicious: yesterday was the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, as well as the namesday of our abbot, Archimandrite Luke. Also, it was the anniversary of the death of Jose Muñoz-Cortes, who was the guardian of the Montreal Icon of the Mother of God. This icon, of which the Hawaiian icon is a copy, also streamed myrrh and visited parishes. Thus, the stage was set for a very busy and intense weekend.

The weekend began with a panikhida (memorial service) for Br. Jose, served by Metropolitan Hilarion, our church's chief prelate. A whole busload of pilgrims from Washington DC surrounded the grave, and sang the refrains in the panikhida: Grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of Thy servant who has fallen asleep! Many of these pilgrims venerate Br. Jose as a martyr, on account of his violent murder in Athens.

Several hours later, the icon came to the church for the Vigil. It was met outside by the priests and acolytes, and was escorted inside to the singing of hymns. A moleben was sung, and then Vigil started. I was in the kliros* with the rest of the choir, so my view of the congregation behind me was obscured. However, I could see that the church was quite packed.

Since both the Icon and our First Hierarch were present for this Vigil, it was destined to be a very long and elaborate service. Fr. Roman, our choirmaster, chose the most beautiful pieces befitting the Mother of God, including a Bogoroditse Dyevo (O Mother of God and Virgin…) arranged by Archimandrite Matfei, and a Great Doxology harmonized from the znamenny chant by Chesnokov. The beauty of the service kept us energized until the end of the Vigil, around 11 pm.

The next day, I was assigned to help prepare food in the kitchen. Since there were about 200 people to be served, it was a very physically demanding task. I worked from about 6:30am to nearly 3pm, with some pausing for breakfast and lunch. Among the things I did were: setting tables, cutting fish, and washing extremely large pots and pans. The sinks that we use for washing big pots got clogged-up at one point, and attempts to unplug one sink would just push the excess water into the other. So, with the help of my friend and co-worker, we used two plungers for both sinks, unplugging the drains. I looked outside. It was snowing!

Lunch was successfully served on time. Afterwards, Fr. Luke had a short reception in his office for his namesday; the Icon was also brought there. Because of the long day, I had to take some rest, but I got up in time to go to the upper cemetery for another service in front of the icon.

The next day, the icon was present for liturgy, but then it had to go to Utica for their parish feast. I said goodbye to Reader Nectarios, who had given me some icons for distribution.

This weekend was very long and tiring, but ultimately very grace-filled. The Hawaiian myrrhstreaming icon was a very important factor in my conversion to Orthodoxy, and I am very happy to see it again. Please remember in your prayers our little parish in Honolulu, and especially Reader Nectarios.

*A partitioned section outside the sanctuary where the choir sings.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Preliminary Remarks on Serving in the Altar

This past week, I was assigned to serve in the church altar from Monday through Saturday. It was the first time in my life that I had ever served as an acolyte (altar boy) in any Orthodox church.

Acolytes are an important part of Orthodox worship. They help the priest and deacons move gracefully through the service, making it easier for everyone to pray. An incompetent altar server is worse than none for a priest. Of course, since it was my first time, I was very nervous: what if I forget to hand over the censer? What if I trip over myself going down the stairs? What if I set myself on fire?

Well, the last one was not likely, though not impossible. I was still a little worried. Thankfully, seminarians are assigned in pairs to serve during the week, and I had several, more experienced people telling me what to do.

Seminarians usually are assigned to serve once a semester, for the morning liturgies. Among their main tasks:
  • Arrive 30 minutes before the liturgy begins, which means 5:30 am. This actually improved my sleeping schedule, since I had to stick to consistent sleep-wake times.
  • Read as many Russian names as possible for the commemoration. Parishioners usually leave lists of names to pray for, either in books or on slips. The names, written in Russian cursive, can be quite hard for gringos like me to decipher, but by the end of the week I was doing all right.
  • Cut prosphora (blessed bread) into bite-size pieces.*
  • Carry out candles at the proper times.
  • Light the charcoal in the censer, place incense in the censer, and give it to the priest/deacon at the appropriate times.
  • Generally follow whatever the priest/deacon/senior people tell them to do.
  • Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Acolytes need to also be practically unnoticeable; otherwise it will again be distracting. They kind of remind me of the black-garbed stagehands in kabuki, who come out into the scenes, but because of their graceful, inconspicuous behavior, fade into the background.

For me, serving in the altar is a very humbling experience; seven-year-olds serve in the altar better than I do! But the altar is a remarkable and holy place, and those who serve humbly and reverently receive a great reward.

*This is different from the actual communion bread, which is cut by the priest himself. The people receive bread at the end of the Orthodox liturgy. As this was traditionally for those who did not receive Holy Communion, it is referred to “antidoron” or “instead of the gifts”.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Seminarian: Early Morning

There's no such thing as a typical day for a Jordanville seminarian; every day, though having the same basic structure, has its own unique challenges. Moreover, these challenges vary from person to person. Here I present my own basic early morning schedule, based on a whole month-and-a-half of experience.

The first thing I usually hear in the morning is the sound of a bell and a light knock on my door, the customary wake-up call in the dorm. The bell-and-knock, considered by some to be the bane of their existence, actually seems to be too gentle for some people. I usually acknowledge the reveille by turning over in bed.

What really gets me up (after several hits of the snooze button) is my cell-phone alarm, set to a funky ringtone. It's about 5:45 am or so, which makes me a little late for Liturgy. Oh well: I throw on my podryasnik and coat, and brave the elements.

Divine liturgy is served nearly every day at Jordanville. In former times, seminarians had to attend Liturgy every day; now, we only have to attend every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, along with (naturally) the Sunday Liturgy.* On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we can get up around 7 am and attend communal prayers in the dormitory hall. This new schedule has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, we might be losing spiritual benefit from not attending Liturgy every day. On the other hand, the extra hour does give us the chance to catch up on sleep, which, like money, is a dear commodity for a seminarian.

The length of the liturgy depends on the priest serving, but usually it ends around 7:15. The language of worship is Church Slavonic. Recently, I've been singing on kliros, despite my novice abilities in the language. Singing, besides its spiritual benefits, helps a sleepy seminarian stay alert.

After the liturgy, we then go to breakfast in the trapeza (refectory). Breakfast is usually hot and cold cereal with milk. We also have bread, cheese, and if people are getting fancy, french toast and the like. On fasting days, we get rid of everything dairy and have soy milk instead.

Having written all this, I realize that my day seems a little busy in the morning. However, this is just the beginning...

* Of course, if one is assigned to serve in the altar during the week, he has to get up early every day.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Raindrops on Roses

I‘ll admit it: I‘m feeling sentimental.

Here at Jordanville, we seminarians have to live a relatively simple life, free of the fetters of much of what modern society has to offer, like Youtube, wifi, and medium-rare prime rib. Of course, our lives aren‘t easy—we have many of the same trials and temptations that everyone has. But, when I feel depressed, I turn to many of the simple things that I‘ve learned to enjoy, such as:
  • The pulsing ring of the bells at Matins.
  • The taste of fresh bread.
  • Cherry tomatoes.
  • A quiet walk to the Cross on the hill.
  • Incense.
  • Understanding something Lev Ivanovich says.
  • The fresh taste of Jordanville tap-water.
  • In-jokes with friends.
Nope, never a dull moment.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Five-Finger Discount

Let's say you move to Jordanville from somewhere more tropical than not, like (for the sake of example) Hawaii. And, like most other residents of the 50th State, you have no idea what it means for there to be 12 feet, let alone 12 inches, of snow. So, you bring a jacket, maybe a coat, but lack some other essentials, like gloves, a hat, scarves, snow shoes, etc.

Of course, you can go to the local Wal-Mart or other sporting goods store to get these things. But you're a seminarian, which means that money does not come easy. Never fear: the free table is here!

The free table is a long-standing Jordanville tradition. Locals drop off unneeded items for the benefit of the brotherhood, including:
  • Books (spiritual works, etc.)
  • Winter coats and jackets
  • Gloves
  • Lamps
  • Unused socks and toothbrushes (Before the owner realizes it's a free table!)
  • Nail clippers (like 20 of them)
  • Prayer ropes
  • A telephone
  • And much, much more!
Warning: do not leave items on the free table if you do not want a monk or seminarian to take them within thirty seconds.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Before Thy Cross…

On this day, 1,675 years ago, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was dedicated. The Holy Cross, upon which hung Him Who hung the earth upon the waters, was taken outside the church and venerated by the faithful. Three centuries later, the Byzantine emperor Heraclitus recovered the Cross from the Persians, who had captured it in battle. Today, we celebrate these two events with the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

The Exaltation, one of the twelve major feasts of the Orthodox Church, is unique in that it includes a special ceremony at the end of the Vigil service where the main officiating priest raises and lowers a cross five times, literally exalting it, while the chanters sing “Lord, have mercy” a hundred times each. Rose water is poured over the cross (which includes a relic of the True Cross) while it is being exalted.

Also on this day, 1,603 years ago, Archbishop John of Constantinople, called Chrysostom, died in exile in Armenia. His last words at the end of his via dolorosa were “Glory to God for all things.” However, since he reposed on a major feast, his feast-day (and my namesday) is on November 13/26.

Today also happens to be my birthday. However, since the Exaltation of the Cross is a fast day (which means no meat or milk) the celebration of my birthday is transferred (like my namesday) to the next non-fasting day after the Exaltation.

That would be hard to explain to the waitresses at Applebee’s, however.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Somebody's gotta do it.

It has been two weeks since classes started. We seminarians are starting to get into the groove. And we're already making quick escapes into town. Pretty soon we'll be stashing beef jerky under our beds and furtively listening to rock music. But for now, I'm safe.

To prevent any widespread outbreak of meat consumption* and other hazards, we are kept very busy by our classwork and obediences. An obedience refers to any directed task done by a monastic or, in this case, a seminarian. I won't get preachy, but the Church Fathers say that learning obedience is the most important stepping stone to salvation, since it teaches us humility. Seminarians here get several different kinds of obedience:
  • Dormitory maintenance. First-years have to help clean the dorm once a week. Last Saturday, I got the basement, which was actually very simple to do. I got rid of all the ruins of a once-great spider civilization, and the basement was more or less clean.
  • Regular obediences. Throughout the year, we aid the monastery in its various activities. Some seminarians work very hard in maintaining the grounds and making sure the place doesn't get too scruffy. Others work in more urbane settings, like in the library. As I mentioned in a previous post, I got assigned to work in the bookstore, which has gotten pretty high-tech in the last year; our system keeps track of inventory, and we even have barcodes on many of our books!
  • Dishwashing. First-years get assigned to wash dishes every week. One seminarian washes the small dishes/cups/etc. and the other washes the large pots and pans. I wash the big pots and pans every Wednesday after lunch and dinner. It currently takes me about an hour and a half to do the washing. By big pots and pans, I mean big. Giant. Large enough to baptize triplets in. Cooking enough food to feed thirty seminarians, twenty (more or less) monastics, and various lay workers, not to mention pilgrims, takes a lot of time and effort. Our kitchen has a very large sink divided in two for the big pots, and, opposite, an industrial-strength dishwasher.
What I've learned so far: Of earthly sentiments, the feeling of having performed a decent job ranks pretty high on my list. Also, I've made some good friends while working together on obediences. You get what you put into it.

*We're allowed to eat meat, but all our meals in the refectory are meatless.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More notes on the Podryasnik

Some more things to note:
  • While wearing a podryasnik, it is inappropriate to cross your legs, especially when you are in church.
  • If you are a seminarian at Jordanville, you will be blessed to wear a cassock at the beginning of the school year. You should wear your cassock in church, in classes, and in the refectory. When you’re “off-duty,” you can wear casual clothes.
  • It is called a cassock, not a cossack. A Cossack is one of “a group of predominantly East Slavic martial people living in the southern steppe regions of Eastern Europe and Asian Russia” and various other parts of the world. Don’t mess with a Cossack, especially if he is in a cassock.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Last Tuesday, we new seminarians got to wear our podryasniki. For you non-Russians, a podryasnik is a (usually) black cassock that Orthodox clergy, monastics, and seminarians wear. In the Russian tradition, the podryasnik is a double-breasted, form-fitting garment. Seminarians at Jordanville wear the cassock with a black leather belt, just like the novice monks.

I‘d love to show you pictures of my cassock, but unfortunately, I am in want of a USB cord for my camera. Anyway, here are some tips for potential seminarians regarding the cassock, based on seven days of experience:
  • Any color will do, as long as it‘s black.
  • The novelty of wearing the podryasnik will wear off pretty quickly, especially if you‘re wearing a woolen cassock on a hot day.
  • Make sure to lift up the “skirt” when you go up stairs or make prostrations, so as not to step on your cassock and potentially cause yourself injury.
  • It might be a good idea to have two: one for summer (cotton) and one for winter (wool). I wear a wool cassock, which keeps me pretty warm on cool days. You can also get a cassock vest, if you want to look snazzy.
  • Don‘t fuss with it in church. It does not look good.
  • One of the novices here can sew. He might be able to adjust or repair your cassock, if he has time.
Above all, the podryasnik represents the new life of a seminarian. I pray that I wear it worthily.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Entrance Exams!

Apparently, all new students have to take entrance exams before starting seminary. My fellow freshmen and I were curious about the content of the exams, but the upperclassmen we asked simply said, “If you don’t know Russian, you start at first year.” Which, as it turned out, was all we really had to know.

We assembled yesterday morning on the second floor of the seminary building, then entered one of the classrooms. Someone came in: “If you don’t know any Russian, please proceed to the next classroom.” First exam: over!

Four of us got up and transferred to a room marked “Second Year.” “Hey! We passed to the second year!” said the most gregarious of us, who we will call Tex.  The woman, who turned out to be our Russian professor Karina Ross, passed us our first exam, and also briefly explained our future Russian course.

The first exam was English. I had a fun time trying to remember all the High School English grammar that I forgot. That took an hour.

The second exam, Principles of Orthodoxy, took much longer to complete, because answering the questions involved writing on various points of biblical interpretation. Thankfully, we got to use bibles (King James).

For the rest of the day I basically took a break from daily obediences and chilled out a bit. The rest of Thursday’s activities deserve their own post.

Today, we met again at eight o’clock, but this time it was only us first-year students. Our only “exam” was to meet with Fr. Vladimir Tsurikov, the dean of the seminary, and receive our class schedules. I found out that I tested out of English (as expected) but still had to take Principles (also as expected). Fr. Vladimir also told me where I was assigned for obediences: church cleaning. After telling him that I had experience working at the cathedral bookstore in SF, my assignment got changed. So, here are my first semester classes:

Russian I (5 classroom hours plus 5 hours of independent study)
Intro to Liturgics (1 hour)
Patristic Anthropology (2 hours)
Church Slavonic I (2 hours)
Church Music I (2 hours)
Russian History (2 hours)
Biblical Archeology (1 hour)

So, 20 hours of straight-up studying, plus 10 hours of obediences, and 10 hours of church, make for a very busy week. Hopefully, I will have time to update!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How to Get Here

Holy Trinity Monastery is about one mile north of the drowsy hamlet of Jordanville, New York, located somewhere in the Mohawk Valley, in the center of a triangle formed by Albany, Cooperstown, and Utica. People usually get here from Utica, Syracuse, or Albany, in order of distance. There's also a shuttle service for pilgrims going to and from New York City.

I arrived at Syracuse Airport around 11:30 am, after a long, eight-hour ordeal involving a red-eye from San Francisco, a 2-hour layover in Philly, and another flight. I did not wait long; Alejandro, a 5th-year seminarian (more on him later) spotted me right away. Apparently, he was there to pick up another seminarian, and thought that I was coming an hour later. We gathered my luggage, found the other seminarian (Peter, from Ukraine) and got some lunch. Peter and I went to a “Chinese” buffet near Utica. Note the quotes.

After getting to the dormitory, I rested a bit, then went out with a Matushka from San Francisco and her brother, a priest in Rochester, to the local fancy Italian restaurant. This trend of going out to eat on fasting days would continue for the next week or so.

Monday, August 30, 2010

First Post

My name is John, and I am entering my first year as a seminarian at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York. Jordanville is the flagship monastery/seminary for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Before I came here, I tried to find out what seminary life was like, which led me to several articles written by ROCOR clergy. They were helpful, but a little out of date. So, for the sake of my family, friends, and anyone curious about life at an Orthodox seminary, I am going to write about my experiences here. My hope is that anyone curious about going to seminary would find this blog useful.

The seminary life at Jordanville is known for its close integration with the monastic life. Seminarians eat with the monks in the refectory as well as attend services with them. Outsiders might think that this kind of life would be dull. So far, I think that living here is much more interesting than living in the city. For example, all the time spent commuting is basically eliminated. When I was living in San Francisco, it took a half-hour each going there to work/church and back again. Now it takes approximately one minute. And there's always something to do, which will be written about in detail in the posts to come!