Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Rules of Silent Ninja

The most popular game played at conference (at least among the people I hung out with) was Silent Ninja. It’s a little hard to explain how to play it online, but I’ll try my best to lay out what it’s all about. Perhaps you can try it at your New Year’s or Christmas parties!

Silent Ninja is a live action turn-based strategy game. I’m explaining here the rules we followed at syezd.

To play the game, you will need:
  • A large open space, preferably with some kind of padding on the floor.
  • A decent number of participants (at least ten)
  • A referee
The players get into a circle and reach out their hands into the center. They yell, “One…Two…Three…NINJA!!!” and jump back, freezing into various poses. At this point, all players have to stay in position, moving nothing but their eyes. The referee then begins with one player to start.


The players take turns and try to get each other out. This is done by using your hands to hit other player’s hands. The wrist does not count. 

During your turn, you can only move in a single fluid motion to attack. The person you’re attacking can defend himself, but again using a single fluid motion. After you finish your turn, both you and your target have to freeze in position. This can leave you wide open to attack, so be careful!

Various positions you can take during play.

Your position is key. Oftentimes you can’t see your targets (or your attackers for that matter) and you have to use peripheral vision and ninja skills. If your hands are out in the open, they will get slapped. Sometimes players stay in defensive mode by crossing their arms; this can get a little silly once there are only two or three players left.

The referee keeps track of whose turn it is. At first, all the players are in a circle, taking turns clockwise, but after all that movement things get jumbled up, so you really need a good referee to sort things out. However, you are allowed to move as soon as player before you moves: no permission from the ref is required.

Once there are two or three players left, things start heating up. Since you can move as soon as the other guy moves, the pace of the game gets much quicker. The endgame is all about reflexes at this point.

Last ninja standing wins!

Pictures taken from the 2010 conference in Jordanville.

Friday, December 30, 2011

St. Herman’s Youth Conference: Ottawa (Part II)


The first several days of syezd were fun, but things really started to pick up on Sunday. In the morning, we took several buses to the Protection Church in Ottawa, which I think is an example of good, traditional Orthodox church architecture. The church reminded me of the churches I’ve studied for my church architecture paper, especially churches in the Novgorod and Vladimir regions. The interior was a very large space, with four piers towering over the nave, making the usual cross-in-dome plan. The western piers also helped support a gallery (the choir loft). The square nave and piers create a sense of verticality which is complemented by the multi-tiered iconostasis, which had excellent icons executed in a traditional style. Unfortunately, the vaults and cupola of the church were bare; the ceiling was covered in blue paint. Hopefully someday, when the church has enough funding (and a skilled iconographer), the blue paint will be replaced with beautiful frescoes.

The Great Entrance.

The liturgy was hierarchal, and at least ten or so priests and deacons assisted Metropolitan Hilarion and Archbishop Gabriel. Their presence combined with the many youth in attendance made the service feel very lively. Most of us received Holy Communion from one of the three chalices which came out. At the end of the liturgy, we all had a group photo.

The trapeza meal was filling, and it was nice to sit and talk for a bit. After the meal, the guys helped clear the parish hall and set it up as a food bank. The Ottawa church sponsors this and other projects; it also owns a retirement home and runs a church school. During the last Great Lent, I went up to Ottawa to participate in an annual fundraiser the parish holds for an orphanage in Ukraine. It’s very nice that the parish is active, and I think that’s why it’s doing well.

Afterwards we went back to the hotel. We had a little time for some activities (mostly Silent Ninja) before coming back for the group discussions.

Actually, it wasn’t so silent.

When we got back, Reader Nektary, the guardian of the Hawaiian Iveron icon, told us how he discovered the icon, and about the miracles the Mother of God has done through her Icon.

There was little time left for small group discussions, so the priests got together in a panel and answered questions that we wrote for them. I liked Fr. Vyacheslav’s answer to the question, “When is the right age for dating?” He told a joke: “A realtor is showing a couple around a house, and is explaining all its features. The couple listen excitedly. Finally, it’s getting close to the end, and the house seems to be just the right fit for them. The realtor then asks them, ‘By the way, what sort of hobbies do you have?’ They answered, ‘We like going with realtors to look at houses on the weekend.’” The point of the story being that whether you’re is 16 or 40, if you’re not ready to settle down, you shouldn’t get involved in a romantic relationship.

Some of the other questions got more compact answers. Fr. David Straut got: “Is it okay to party in college?” “No,” he said. “Next question!”

After the discussions we sang an akathist in front of both the Iveron and Kursk-Root icons. Unfortunately, the Iveron icon had to leave with its guardian the next day, but the Kursk-Root icon was staying.

We then had dinner and free time, which was spent going out in the snow. I had my first snowball fight!


After prayers and breakfast, we all got on buses headed to downtown Ottawa. There, we looked around the ByWard Market. Some of us, led by Alex Cooley, went Christmas caroling. We then had a tour of the Canadian Parliament. I loved its Gothic architecture! The exterior was interesting, and featured a giant beaver guarding the entrance-way. The tour was short but informative.

Mr. Beaver guards the Parliament.

We returned to the hotel, had lunch, and remained in the conference hall for the last lecture, which was given by Nicholas Chapman, who happens to be my boss at the monastery bookstore. Nicholas gave his lecture on Colonel Philip Ludwell III, one of the first Orthodox converts in America. Ludwell, a relative of George Washington and connected to many of our Founding Fathers, converted when he was only 22 years old. He wrote several books on Orthodox teaching and piety, and led a small Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Virginia.

We had a little bit of free time afterwards before the final banquet. I got signed up for the talent show. As I put on my red vest and tie, I started worrying about what to do. I had brought my ukulele all the way from Jordanville to Ottawa, and like Chekhov’s gun, it was aching to be used. Suddenly, in my head, I heard a familiar tune:

Five foot two, eyes of blue,
But oh what those five foot could do!
Has anybody seen my gal?

I quickly googled the song (“Five Foot Two”) and found a site with tabs. I practiced playing it while lending the computer to some girls who were practicing a Serbian kolo.

The talent show was pretty hilarious. It was MC’d by four of the guys calling themselves SHEEEPS: The St. Herman’s Envious, Energetic, Emotional Poetry Society (or something to that effect). The SHEEPS came out to recite some haiku in between acts, including:

Syezd is over, he's home
Ten new female Facebook friends
Which one is the One?

I was introduced as the “Hilarious Hawaiian.” I can’t speak for my strumming skills, but I guess people liked it, which was good for a few minutes’ practice. I also sang with Anthony and one of the SHEEPS an Irish wedding tune called “Mary’s Wedding,” in honor of the recently engaged Maria and Michael.

And thus, we finished syezd. I’m very grateful to everyone who organized the event, as well as Fr Stelian Liabotis and Fr Alexis Pjawka for inviting us to Ottawa!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

St Herman’s Youth Conference: Ottawa (Part I)

December is a pretty relaxing time for a seminarian. Classes wind down, the exam season begins, and then comes the home stretch—the pre-Christmas cleaning. Somewhere in the middle is the youth conference.

I was pretty stoked for this year’s syezd. The first conference I attended was in 2009 in Methuen, but I was only there for a short time. In 2010 the conference was in Jordanville, but of course as part of the local group I didn’t stay at the hotel with everyone else. So even though it was technically my third syezd, I was going to have the full conference experience for the first time.


We drove up on Friday. That morning, I finished my last exam for the semester, which was New Testament Greek. Later that afternoon, we set off. Three of us were going: My classmate Anthony, his sister Catherine, and I. On the way to Ottawa we listened to and sang along with an eclectic selection of music, which included Simon & Garfunkel (“I am a ROCK, I am an iiiiiiiiiiiiiiisland.”) and Hannah Montana (“I’m a rock star!!!”). The latter was made bearable with interspersed color commentary.

We met with some unexpected trouble at the border. The last time I went to Canada we had to go inside and explain ourselves. This time I tried to prepare. I wrote down the address to the hotel, had the three of us get our stories consistent, etc. But, when the border guard started questioning us, the following (slightly exaggerated) exchange happened.

Guard: “Do you have any guns, bombs, weapons of mass destruction, pepper spray, etc.?”
Catherine: “Uhhh…I have some mace. [takes out a tiny canister of mace, colored bright pink]”
Guard: “Yes, that’s a weapon. You know that’s not allowed in Canada, eh?”
Catherine: “I do now!”

Catherine had to go inside and surrender her deadly weapon. Thankfully I left my Hawaiian war club at home.

Those shark teeth are purely for decoration…really!

Several hours later, we finally arrived at our hotel. Anthony and I reunited with friends long unseen, and we unpacked and got settled.


Nobody goes to syezd for down time, as I discovered. After morning prayers, a moleben and a breakfast of muffins, we quickly got down to business. Fr Peter Jackson and Archbishop Gabriel of Canada both gave opening remarks. Like last year, Vladyka Gabriel gave the “X number of particpants, X/2 number of marriages” line, but also stated his great pleasure in hearing that one couple from last year got married and another got engaged. The two couples—friends of mine—started turning a little red.

We had quite a few guests at the conference. Metropolitan Hilarion was present over the whole weekend, alongside Archbishop Gabriel and many priests. Throughout the conference, we were also blessed with the presence of two wonder-working icons of the Mother of God: the ancient Kursk-Root icon, protector of the Russian diaspora, and the Hawaiian Iveron icon.

After breakfast we had two lectures. The first was done by Fr Vyacheslav Davidenko and was on spiritual role models. He used examples from the lives of saints to show how they converted people based on their holy way of living. For example, St Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna, was sought after by some soldiers. They met the old man in his house and demanded to retrieve Polycarp. The saint replied that he would find Polycarp the next day for them. But first he took care of them, feeding them well and giving them lodging. After the morning came, the saint presented himself to them. The soldiers, impressed by the kind way he treated them, refused to arrest him, but St Polycarp pressed them to do their duty. This they did, and as a result they were all converted by him and shared in his martyrdom. Fr Vyacheslav entreated us to begin reading the lives of the saints in order to let them influence our lives today.

Fr Sergei Sveshnikov then gave us a talk on living life as a sacrament. You can find his talk at his site, here. He basically said that the whole of life could be transformed through prayer and attention. I really liked both lectures.

After the lectures we had some free time. My group mostly spent in the Hospitality Room (which through mispronunciation became known as the Hostility Room). Then came lunch, choir rehearsal, small group discussions, and finally prayers for communion. By the time we finished, it was time to go to church.

A bus took several trips to bring us all to the Protection Church in Ottawa. We had dinner in the parish hall. Then we had a full vigil service, with the hierarchs in attendance.

After we got back, we had some time to relax and play some rounds of Silent Ninja (which will require a post of its own). Finally we went to sleep, anticipating Sunday and the rest of the Conference.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Unexpected Feast

Our dormitory has a kitchenette that we use quite frequently. Recently, one of the seminarians cooked up some red beans and rice for us. He combined a box of Zatarain’s, a can of beans, and assorted shellfish to create a delightful dish for eight. I saw him adding something that vaguely looked like sausages.

Lenten goodness.

“What’s that?” I said, somewhat alarmed.
“Never you mind, John Martin,” he answered.

The sausage-like things turned out to be chipotle peppers, which added some Texas heat to the beans and rice. The heat dissipated from them so much that the peppers themselves turned out to be quite bland. “There’s a party in my mouth, and it’s burning stuff,” I said between bites.

Scarfing down a pepper!

Another seminarian came in and decided to make his own contribution. He took out some tilapia filets from the freezer and thawed and fried them up. I’m not a big fan of tilapia, but the filets turned out really well!

Another seminarian, of Mongolian extraction, announced earlier that he was going to make a “Nestor” for his eggs. Something clearly got lost in translation. It wasn’t until “Nestor” came out that we realized what it was:

“Nestor” (гнездо=nest) made from shoestring potatoes.

“Nestor” was really delicious, and it had a slight vinegary, savory taste which cleansed the palate after the spicy beans and rice. To round out the affair, a (married) sister of one of the seminarians baked us a vegan chocolate cake.

Good food, good friends, and a pleasant evening.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Free Table Finds (1)

A two-liter bottle of Diet Canada Dry Ginger Ale, along with some pamphlets in Russian. Found after dinner several weeks ago. I didn’t take the ginger ale because a) someone already opened the bottle and b) it was diet ginger ale.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Our First Gig!

Months of practice finally paid off at our Seminary Choir’s public debut at Holy Epiphany Church in Boston. We didn’t sing a concert. Rather, we did the weekend services, which was even better. There were five of us: Nicky Kotar, David, Anthony, Pete, and me.

Boston is one of my favorite cities on the east coast, at least judging from the places I’ve been. The last time I was in Boston was for the Boston Ball and Youth Choir Weekend last summer.

Pete and his wife Kate went ahead of us on Friday night, so just four of us left on Saturday morning, taking the old, beat-up seminary van for the weekend. Nicky had classical music CDs for our enjoyment. I voted for Mozart’s Requiem. Driving on the cold highway, past the snow-covered trees, we thus heard:

Dies iræ! Dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Which gave us a little memento mori for our journey.

We then listened to Dvořák’s New World Symphony, which sounded like every movie soundtrack ever made, probably because everybody ripped off Dvořák.

We arrived at downtown Boston around 2:30. I’ve had some experience in Boston before, but I wasn’t very familiar with the area, and it was hard giving directions. “Um, there’s a P.F. Chang’s. And a Legal Seafoods.” We wandered around a bit until our friends showed up. We met up with Alex Cooley and Nadia, and then with Pete, Kate, and Suzie. Suzie, a Boston native, gave us a whirlwind tour of the area around Boston Common, including the Make Way For Ducklings statues, the State House with its gilded dome, and some rearranged graves of famous Bostonians. By the time we made our transit we had to leave for Fr Victor Boldewskul’s house for dinner. So, we got into the car, managed to navigate through Boston traffic, reconnected with Cooley’s car, and drove like madmen through the streets of Boston, toward Roslindale.

We finally parted ways with Cooley at Fr Victor’s house, and went inside for dinner. Fr Victor was very happy to see us, and we had a light dinner of Chinese takeaway. At the end of the dinner, we opened up our fortune cookies. Mine said, “No one ever became great through imitation.”

“That’s funny,” Nicky said, “mine says, ‘Now is the time to be a role-model. The younger is watching.’”

We then went to church and sang the Vigil, which went by smoothly. We did the whole service by ourselves, and used all the pieces we practiced, which included various arrangements of ancient chant. Unfortunately, we didn’t do a special “Svete Tikhii” (O Gladsome Light) because we forgot to bring the second page of the piece.

After Vigil, we went to Fr Alexander Jarostchuk’s house, where we had a delicious second dinner. Fr Victor also came by, and he regaled us with stories of seminary life back when he was at Jordanville twenty years ago. Meanwhile, Fr Alexander’s wife Elena came in with some treats made with pineapple.

“I’ll be stereotypical,” I said. “Give me the pineapple.”

Return of the purpledryasnik!

Sunday also went well. I was wearing my infamous purple cassock, which always puts me in a good mood. After the liturgy we had a nice lenten meal in the downstairs trapeza. The babushki kept offering us potent potables. All went pretty well. After we had something to eat, we went to the Law of God class to talk about life at the seminary, fielding questions: “Yes, we can go out (if we get a blessing). No, we don’t eat kasha and bread all the time.”

We rounded out the trip with a final visit to Fr Victor’s house, where he showed us some old pictures from his time as a seminarian. We then did a little reprise of a couple of pieces.

Bow ties are cool.

It was a very memorable weekend. I’m very grateful to Fr Victor and Fr Alexander for their generous hospitality in hosting us, and hope to be back in Boston before too long!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Surprise Trip

Last week Thursday we were in Fr Andrei’s Russian Church History class, when Fr Cyprian stuck his head inside the doorway and said: “Who wants to go to St Nektarios today?”

St Nektarios Monastery is a Greek monastery founded by Elder Ephraim of Philotheou, located near Roscoe, NY. It’s a little over two hours away from Jordanville. In lieu of Greek class, we second-years were going to get a first-hand taste of Greek monastic life.

By a little pond near the trapeza.

Soon after ten o’clock, four of us second-years (plus Nicky Kotar) got into the black monastic van, and gunned it for Roscoe. After all, we wanted to make it in time for lunch. I brought a book along for the ride, but the undulating landscape was not very conducive to reading, and I had to set it aside.

We got there around noon, only to find out that lunch was actually going to be at half-past. We spent some time in the bookstore before heading to the trapeza. Lunch was simple: some potatoes, pickled green tomatoes, soup, some rusk. Yet it was very delicious. We quietly ate while a monk read from a high pulpit towering over the refectory. When the meal finished the monks sang the kontakion for Christmas, and we all processed out of the trapeza, while the abbot, Elder Joseph, stood to the side and blessed us.

We seminarians then went back inside and helped out with the cleaning up and preparation for the next meal, which took about an hour and a half. We spent some more time in the bookstore, taking pictures, etc. and then went to the monastery church, where a priest was blessing people with a relic of the True Cross. We received the blessing, and soon afterwards Vespers began. We stood in our monastic choir stalls (stasidia) while listening to the beautiful antiphonal chanting of Byzantine hymns.

By the end it was dark, and the grounds were all lit up with Christmas lights.

There was also a rather unique nativity scene, executed in a Byzantine iconic style:

Right after dinner we had to take leave of our hosts. We drove back at a leisurely pace. It’s nice to have a little vacation now and then.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Parks and Ordination

The period after Thanksgiving seems to go by very quickly. Two weeks of classes are sandwiched in between the Thanksgiving vacation and exams, which actually are a bit of a vacation in themselves. Papers get turned in, loose ends get tied up, and all the while our minds are already checked in and boarding the plane. It’s a busy time.

Last weekend, we had two big events happen. On Saturday (December 3) a contingent of officials, higher-ups, bureaucrats and activists descended upon our monastery for a ceremony celebrating the inclusion of Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery into the National Register of Historic Places. The whole impetus for getting the monastery recognized was the proposed building, not too long ago, of a number of wind turbines (“Each as tall as the Statue of Liberty,” according to Fr Luke) about a mile east of the Monastery. The monastery joined forces with local interests groups opposed to this development, and applied and received historical landmark status at the state level. Federal recognition allows the monastery to potentially receive grant money or tax credits for the upkeep of its buildings. Usually religious buildings don’t receive this kind of recognition, but according to the powers-that-be, not only does the monastery represent the local community, it is a landmark for the entirety of the Russian Diaspora.

So, a number of people spoke about their individual and group efforts to preserve the monastery and fight the wind turbine people (who were forced out of business, apparently because of shady dealings that they did). Fred Miller, one of the members of the New York State Preservation League, spoke about how he had help understanding our Russian Orthodox ways with the help of one of the nuns in the nearby skete: “Whenever I got something wrong with protocol and what-not…Mother Barbara would grab me by the throat!”

After the talk, we partook of a big spread of refreshments and the visitors got a tour of the monastery grounds.

The next day, one of our seminarians got ordained. It was the Feast of the Entrance of the Holy Mother of God into the Temple. Igor, the seminarian in question, got tonsured a reader before the beginning of liturgy, and then ordained a deacon by Archbishop Gabriel of Canada. Fr Igor will serve for the next forty days in church and will be ordained a priest on Christmas Day.

But otherwise, everything is все нормально, business as usual, here in Jordanville. At least until uborka.

The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe

And now for something completely different. As I’ve noted before, some of us seminarians watch Doctor Who on a regular basis, and we’re quite excited about the upcoming Christmas Special: The Doctor, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The BBC has put up a prequel, which you can see above. And here’s the trailer!