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.