Sunday, January 27, 2013

Halfway Reflections

“It’s the Wednesday of your seminary life!” So said a matushka friend of mine when she dropped by at the bookstore some months back. Indeed, I am halfway through my five-year program at Jordanville. When I first started, I was contemplating only staying here for a couple of years, trying to test the waters and figuring out my true vocation in life. But soon after I became a part of the seminary, it had become a part of my life, shaping my identity and molding my character in unexpected ways. Honestly, I felt like my life was actually beginning. Of course, not everything is perfect; I have my share of daily annoyances. It’s still my home.

What shall I do after I graduate? Who will I marry (or Should I become a monk)? Where shall I live? These questions come up again and again for seminarians. People ask us, and we ask ourselves. A few lucky ones have at least two of the three items figured out by the time they reach fourth or fifth year. Others can end up drifting a little bit. It’s like any other college in that sense.

But time and again we all need to remind ourselves that we don’t need to fret about such questions, as worrying can neither add a few inches to our height (as much as I would like that) nor by taking thought can we turn one hair white or black. The lesson repeated to us again and again is that we must *seek first the kingdom of God*. Abraham, Moses, the Holy Apostles, and the rest were all called by God and put places where they didn’t expect, but they kept trusting in His providence. Because of their faith, they were able to accomplish amazing deeds.

The first half of seminary has been amazing. With God’s help I’ll be here for the second half.  I can’t wait for what’s next.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Men’s Lenten Retreat

Orthodoxy has been called a manly religion. After all, we stand in church for hours, grow long beards, and jump into holes in the ice. In Orthodox theology, Christ, instead of merely being the meek Victim, is also the King of Glory, trampling down death by death. Even women martyrs are lauded for their “manly” courage in enduring excruciating tortures.

Men living in modern, post-feminist society are trying to recover the “art of manliness.” But what does that mean in an Orthodox context? We’ll be trying to answer these and other questions at an upcoming Men’s Lenten Retreat that I’m helping to organize with my friend Greg.

So, here is the (unofficial) announcement. Holy Trinity Monastery, with the blessing of Archimandrite Luke, cordially invites you to a Men’s Lenten Retreat on April 12–14, 2013. Join us for fellowship and worship at the one of the oldest Orthodox monasteries in North America!

Everyone will be staying at the monastery guesthouse down the road. I already reserved the rooms, so you won’t have to make any arrangements. The cost will be about $20–30 a night, depending on the room. We also ask for an additional donation of $10 to cover the cost of food.

Retreat participants can check in at the guesthouse on Friday. The retreat officially starts on Saturday with morning liturgy at six o’clock. The day will be filled with discussions and work projects at the monastery. There will also be a special talk on the life and legacy of Archbishop Averky of blessed memory, who reposed on this day nearly forty years ago. On Sunday, after the liturgy and the meal, we will have another spiritual talk and a question and answer session where all are free to discuss their concerns. With that, we will conclude the retreat.

Although it’s only a weekend, I hope that it will be rewarding for all involved. If you have any questions, you can contact me. Make sure to show that you’re participating by joining our event on Facebook!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Black Dragon Eggs

I was hunched over a deep fryer, rigorously shaking the baskets to prevent the fish from sticking to them. A pile of haddock filets the same weight as a small child were thawed in a great metal basin. The steam that came from the fryer carried with it an oily stench that seeped into my clothing. This was how I celebrated the Feast of Theophany.

It was only a couple days since I had gotten back from San Francisco. My vacation was very relaxed and not very exciting. It involved, among other things, hanging around my friends’ house, celebrating a Midnight Liturgy on January 1 (that’s January 14 for most people), and briefly seeing people I knew before they went on vacation. An all-too-brief six days.

Not long after I got back I was put to work. Soon after I arrived at the dorm, I saw Fr. Anatoly, one of the hieromonks, standing around. “John,” he said, “you have kliros with me at four o’clock.” Apparently I got on the list pretty early. Despite having only slept several hours on the red-eye, without (too much) complaint I went and helped sing the service for the Seventy Apostles.

And then there was kitchen. One of the main reasons that many seminarians avoid coming back early is that they will certainly be put somewhere. Nature abhors a vacuum, and our monastery, as needy as it is of physical and material help, needs people to work.

I was on kitchen with Kostya, one of the Chinese seminarians. Kostya was the one who introduced me to Wangzhihei Stinky Tofu Sauce. This time around, he was planning an entire Asian-inspired trapeza, inasmuch as that was possible with the resources we have in Upstate New York. In a big and deep rectangular pan there was some kind of black liquid in which was floating many dark little spheres. On closer inspection, they were eggs.

“These are hardboiled eggs marinated in soy sauce and sugar,” Kostya said in Russian. “Try one!” I took an egg. It was as dark as a cup of tea that had been steeped far too long. The taste was somewhat earthy, with the savory and sweetness of the marinade mixing with the taste and texture of the egg. The earthiness, I found, came from a large pack of tea that Kostya also put into the pan.

Tastier than it looks.

In another pan was a liquid just as dark, with bits of mushrooms and other vegetables that had lost their original form/color. Apparently it was for (Italian) noodles, a sort of reverse Marco Polo if you will. He fixed me up a plate of them. The chewy noodles, already cooked the night before, did not go well with the sickly-sweet and savory sauce. I took a couple bites and set them aside.

For most of my time in the kitchen before lunch, I was preoccupied with frying fish. I experimented here and there with putting different amounts of the fish in the fry baskets, as well as adding some seasonings.

In the end, the most attention was shown the savory tea eggs, which Ivan, one of the guys working with us, dubbed “Black Dragon Eggs.” “BLACK DRAGON EGGS!” Ivan cried out, combining some of the few English words he knew. Fr. Luke, at the beginning of the meal, forewarned everyone in the trapeza to not be alarmed, that these eggs were prepared according to a special Chinese recipe.

“Actually, it’s Japanese,” Kostya told me. I remembered these sorts of eggs floating in bowls of ramen that I’ve eaten before. “But,” he said, “it was my first time making them.”

It was also my first time deep-frying anything. All in all, not too bad for a first time, even if the fish was a little dry, and quite a few of the eggs returned untouched.

That gives incentive to try better next time. If I were head chef, perhaps I’ll sneak the Black Dragon Eggs into your soup, or cut them up into a salad. Either way, you’re going to eat them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Late Departure

Right now I’m writing this in the JetBlue terminal at JFK. My plane is going to start boarding in five minutes, and in about half an hour we’ll be flying off to San Francisco. I’ve wintered in San Francisco every year since I started Seminary.

This year I decided to stay in Jordanville a couple more days before going to California. Unfortunately, that meant that I had to miss the Kotar Christmas party that I’ve gone to for years. But at the same time, I got to make completely new memories and fun experiences.

We celebrated Christmas with the usual festivity. The fish jelly was out yet again, and it still tastes like chicken to me. After lunch I worked in the bookstore, which wasn’t as busy as I expected it would be, perhaps because everyone was upstairs at Fr. Luke’s reception enjoying the extra goodies.

After I punched out, I tried to meet up with Fr. Ephraim and the other seminarians who were out caroling. I hitched a ride with a local Jordanvillian, and I found the carolers at Kate and Pete’s. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. By the time I got back from caroling, it was about eight. We had gone to a number of houses and sang Russian, Ukrainian, and English Christmas carols. My personal favorite is this Ukrainian carol:

We came back laden with stuff given to us by our hosts. My favorite moment was when we went to a nursing home. One of the nursing home residents declared, “I’m a Russky!” and sang along with us for a couple of the carols.

I also got to go to festal liturgies three times in a row, as we celebrated for the first three days of Christmas at nine in the morning, instead of the usual early-morning liturgy at six. It was a good, quiet way to celebrate the Nativity of Christ.

Well, it looks like my plane is boarding! I hope to report on my California travels in a few days. Merry Christmas, everybody! Christ is born!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Hairy Business

Sometimes, in my quest for knowledge, I jump on a hobby-horse and ride it into the ground. This time, I’m galloping along on the historical practice of tonsuring. I don’t have any particular aspirations; my interest in tonsures are purely research-oriented.

What caught my interest was an account by the Venerable Bede (ca. 731) of St. Theodore of Tarsus, the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury. St. Theodore was a Greek monk and, according to St. Bede, had the “tonsure of St. Paul,” which meant that his head was completely bald. It took St. Theodore four months for his hair to grow out so he could receive a Roman tonsure.

Contemporary icon of St. Theodore, with Roman tonsure.
I found this passage curious. As we all know, Eastern Orthodox monks do not keep their heads shaved but rather let their hair grow long. Moreover, I have found no iconographic evidence of this complete tonsure. My search for the “tonsure of St. Paul” yielded many references to the same event as related by St. Bede. In other words, what was presented by many as being the Eastern practice was only based on one historical source.

However, I did find one other reference in St. Germanos, the Patriarch of Constantinople. In his commentary on the Liturgy, he makes reference to the “total” (ὁλοτελῶς) tonsuring of the head “in imitation of the holy Apostle James, brother of the Lord, and of the Apostle Paul, and of the rest.” Thus, there was indeed a practice in the East to completely tonsure the head, and it was related to the Apostle Paul. However, whether or not this tonsure was a one-time event, or if the monks had to maintain their shorn state, is not known. Since St. Theodore was living in a Greek monastery in Rome, he might have been following the particular custom of his monastery. But this is simply speculation.

The Roman tonsure that St. Theodore received was named after the Holy Apostle Peter. St. Germanos relates the story of how St. Peter was shorn in this particular way by his enemies to make him a laughing-stock. Indeed, tonsures in Late Antiquity were given to slaves. However, the shorn head became instead a symbol of honor for Peter, and “changed dishonor into honor, ridicule into praise.” St. Peter’s tonsure in this case is a clerical tonsure, which was worn by all in the clerical state in both the East and West, and merely involves shaving the top part of the head. We can see it in this 7th century mosaic of Pope St. Symmachus:

St. Symmachus (†514)
The tonsure was also common among clerics in the East, as can be seen in this icon of St. Gregory Palamas (†1359):

Note: Some icons do not depict St. Gregory with a tonsure.
This kind of tonsure was known in the East as a papalethra (παπάλεθρα). It is also called a “wreath” (στέφανος), which is why St. Stephen is always depicted in his icon as having a tonsure:

The first (indirect) reference to the papalethra was in the Quinisext Council (692), which in its 21st canon penalized clerics who commit canonical crimes by deposing them and making them grow back the hair on their heads. In the West, monks also wore this kind of tonsure, but also shaved the hair along the bottom as well, making a kind of wreath of hair.

To sum up what I have found out so far:

  1. There was a common clerical tonsure shared by both East and West, in which the hair growing on the crown of the head was shaved off.
  2. There was also a tonsure particular to monks. In the East, this was the complete tonsuring of the head. In the West, the hair on both the top and bottom was shaved, making a wreath of hair.
Of course, I did not even yet mention the third option, the Celtic tonsure (ascribed to St. John), which was basically shaving all the hair on the front half of the head and letting the hair on the back grow long. This style of tonsure was very controversial and a cause of contention between the Celtic monks and their more Latin-minded brethren, who advocated the Roman tonsure and declared the Celtic practice as originating from either Druids or Simon Magus. However, from what I have read so far, this kind of tonsure was also practiced in parts of Gaul.

Clerics in the West continued to wear tonsures until Vatican II (which is why, incidentally, they started to wear skullcaps, in order to cover their tonsures). In the East, we started to grow out our hair after the Fall of Constantinople. St. Nicodemus, in The Rudder, advocated a return to wearing the papalethra, as “it is not correct to do away with ancient devices which our Fathers had devised.” There is some merit to this. After all, it is an ancient practice, common to both East and West. Moreover, a priest can take off his cassock, but he cannot really take off his tonsure.

Despite these good points, I do not advocate a restoration of this ancient practice, as it has fallen into abeyance for such a long time that it would become an affectation (not to mention an eccentricity) to wear a papalethra. Tradition is something which we receive not out of a book but from our forefathers in the faith, in a direct lineage. Thus, I hope that there aren’t any over-zealous seminarians out there getting their razors ready!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Conference Convalescence

Happy New Year!

I intended to post much earlier, but the end of the year is of course full of activity, including final exams and the youth conference. Plus, at the tail end of the conference I caught a nasty bug which left me in bad shape last weekend and is still inflicting me was an annoying cough. But, time to soldier on.

Today I took my last final for the year, in Biblical Greek. Because I was going to the St. Herman’s Conference this year (and it was smack-dab in the middle of finals), I had to take a couple exams before and a couple after. After an hour and three-quarters of parsing and translating, I am glad to have a well-earned break.

Syezd was a fun experience as it was in previous years. This year we had it in Hartford, Connecticut. The hotel was pretty standard, though it’s hard to top last year’s accommodations. I was rooming with a few of the older crowd, a quiet, intellectual bunch. One of us called it the “brain trust,” but I think of it as the “geriatric ward.” (Of course, I was the oldest guy in the room!) Archbishop Gabriel was with us as he was in previous years. Yes, he said: “There are 100 of you, I hope there will be 50 marriages.”

This year we only had one lecturer, as opposed to the endless lineup of speakers at previous conferences. The organizers thought that it would be better to have instead smaller workshops centered around different topics. The main lecturer spoke on the depiction of the afterlife in the Bible, which I found to be quite informative and challenging, as the Scriptures show that whatever the afterlife is, is ultimately shrouded in mystery.

The workshops were a lot of fun. The first one I attended was on confession by Fr. Yaroslav Belikow. I knew Fr. Yaroslav from San Francisco, and he had spoken before at Jordanville on confession. The workshop was very informative. The second workshop was by my friend Dimitry, and it covered leadership. Dimitry gave the principles from How to Win Friends and Influence People a Christian twist, and broke us up into groups to work out some proposed parish-building scenarios.

The third workshop I attended was my favorite; it was by a priest from the South, Fr. Anastassy. Fr. Anastassy, in his gentle Southern accent, went through the actions of the proskomedia service. Even as a seminarian, I had very little idea of what proskomedia is like. As a choir person, I hardly get to spend time in the altar. When I do serve, I’m usually half asleep trying to quickly read names and thus have no time to pay attention to what the priest is actually saying.

Besides the lecture and workshops there were a ton of discussions and other activities, though I wish we had a little free time to relax in between things. Most of our free time came at the end of the day. People jumped in the pool, played card games, lounged around watching Disney movies, and wandered the labyrinthine corridors of the hotel.

We also went out a couple times. For St. Herman’s Day (December 25) we had vigil and liturgy at St. Panteleimon’s Church. Vladika Gabriel and quite a few priests served. We got to form two choirs, at least for the vigil. Also that day, we went into Hartford. Nearly everything was closed Downtown for the Western Christmas, but there was a public ice rink open. It had been seven years since I stepped foot on the ice, but soon I was slowly but surely gliding on the rink. I didn’t even fall down! We also had some caroling afterward for the assembled Hartfordians at the ice rink.

Quite a few exciting things happened at the syezd, and I was involved in none of it. Once, a lot of people got stuck in the elevator, and the fire department had to come to get them out. In the meantime, they, being the good Orthodox they are, started singing church hymns. “This is real elevator music,” someone said to me as we heard them sing a Cherubic Hymn. The acoustics must have been great. The most exciting thing actually happened to me on the way back, as I went with a couple other people back to Jordanville in the middle of a snowstorm. Our vehicle lost control on a country road, and we skidded into a snowbank, where we had to wait an hour before help arrived.

It certainly was a memorable syezd, and I had a good time with my friends, but perhaps I’m getting a little too long in the tooth for it. Perhaps I have to organize a conference for grown-ups!