Tuesday, February 26, 2013

An Episcopal Weekend

Last weekend, four of us went down from Jordanville to Mercer, Pennsylvania for the Spring meeting of the Orthodox Inter-Seminary Movement. This semester, Christ the Savior Seminary hosted. Since the seminary is under the Carpatho-Russians I was really curious to find out about their traditions. Moreover I heard that their hierarch, Gregory of Nyssa (yes, really), was going to be here during the weekend, so I was looking forward to that as well.

Since the seminary itself is very small, we stayed instead at their camp, Camp Nazareth. We unpacked our bags at the staff lodge and met Bishop Gregory, who was already chatting in the living room with the other people who arrived from Holy Cross, where he was a seminarian.

Then we had a moleben at the camp chapel to St. Nektarios. The chapel reminded me of old Russian wooden chapels, with some obvious differences. For example, the cupolas looked more like pears than onions. The Carpatho-Russians sang in English in their style of chant known as prostopinje (“plainchant”), which is related to Znamenny chant. After the moleben we sat down and Bishop Gregory talked to us about his own seminary experiences, such as his difficulties with adjusting to the climate, being from the South. “Seminaries are hellish, but they’re beautiful hells, because they make beautiful priests,” he concluded. His Greek and Southern background added an interesting accent to his resonant bass.

We then had dinner in the large camp lodge. On the walls of the hallway hung past hierarchs of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese, including a bishop named John R. Martin. This was quickly called to my attention, and became the running gag of the weekend. After dinner, we had a group activity with Fr. Stephen Loposky, the camp director. Fr. Stephen split us into groups and had us analyze the agenda of a fictional parish council meeting, and minutes of the previous meeting. We had to identify problems, try to read through the lines, and adopt the role of the incoming priest. Fr. Stephen shared his own struggle being a new priest: “Everything you’re given in life—smarts, brains, brawn—will be required of you.” We discussed the various issues of this fictional parish, with Bishop Gregory adding many wise suggestions. We were so animated in discussion that we did not take notice of the time, and by the time we were finished it was already 11 o’clock. That night, I fell asleep very quickly.

The next morning, we had a brief (for ROCOR) Matins service in the chapel, and then a delicious breakfast served by Fr. Stephen’s Pani (Matushka), Terri. We had another group activity, in which we discussed our first home visits as new priests. We went over issues like scheduling, what to get out of the visit, what to do, what to notice, and who to start with. It was very eye-opening, and I learned quite a few “tricks of the trade” that probably won’t be covered in Pastoral Theology.

After that activity, Fr. Michael Ellis of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship gave a presentation on OCF, which has branches in many colleges in the United States. He explained the importance of working with the OCF and had us share our fondest memories. When it came to my turn (I talked about my first days at seminary) I said, “Hi. I’m John Martin. Like the bishop.” Laughter ensued.

“Eis polla eti Despota,” said Bishop Gregory.

After lunch we had our official OISM meeting. My compatriot Srdjan got elevated from Vice-President to President, and Will from CSS became the new Vice-President. I got to keep my job as Secretary. We also talked about trying to get fundraising for the seminarians from St. Herman’s Seminary in Alaska to come for a meeting, as well as for a possible exchange program between the different seminaries.

In the evening we had Vespers, after which we had dinner and a talk by Monk James from St. Vladimir’s about Orthodox involvement in the pro-life movement, including the annual March for Life. We then had a long discussion around the fireplace with Bishop Gregory and posed him many questions about heavy issues like abortion, homosexuality, adultery, the burial of suicides and non-Orthodox, the proper application of the canons, etc. He answered all our questions very well.

The next day we had Liturgy and then after brunch said our good-byes. I’m very happy with the course of this meeting because it seemed to be more focused on practical pastoral issues. I hope that there will be more of this at future OISM meetings. The next meeting will be held at St. Vladimir’s Seminary next Fall. I’m looking forward to it!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Youth Choir: Back in Boston!

I was lying in bed listening to the sound of my cell phone going off. It was…way too early to be getting up. My door opened. “John, time to get up!” My next-door neighbor, who was serving that week, was making sure that I got up in time to leave for Boston.

Nearly two years ago, the Eastern American Diocese Youth Choir sang in several parishes in the Boston area for the weekend. This time, we were doing a genuine concert at Holy Cross/Hellenic College, extensively advertised and to be professionally recorded and even streamed live online. Plus, two Byzantine choirs from HC/HC and singers from St. Tikhon’s and of course Jordanville joined us (or, I guess, we joined them?). The concert we were doing was a revised version of the “Good Thief” concert we did in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

That was the reason why I was getting up at that very pious hour. Nicky Kotar was already ready to go. Thankfully, I had a bout of insomnia and had the time to pack my weekend bag. We primed the seminary van and waited for Fr. Deacon Ephraim and family, who were continuing up to Maine, to show up. Fr. Ephraim, his wife Joanna, baby Pauline, and their Border Collie Tighe went in the car, and we had an uneventful 4.5 hour drive to Boston.

We arrived at Holy Cross in the middle of a New England winter. Snow made the ground slippery and I was prepared to use what little I remembered from that judo class in college in case I fell. I walked in wearing my Coke-bottle glasses and green sweatshirt to cries of “Axios!” from some of the people meeting for rehearsal in the auditorium. I graciously accepted their congratulations for my recent tonsure as a Reader, and headed to the restroom to freshen up. I came back and caught up with several friends, one of whom, to my delight, actually reads this blog (shout-out).

Nicky Kotar, along with Benedict Sheehan (from St. Tikhon’s) and Alex Cooley, directed the various formations and arrangements of the youth/seminarian choir: male, female, seminarians, 16th century Renaissance sextet, etc. We rehearsed, rehearsed, and rehearsed some more, taking a lunch break in between. Since I was both one of the singers in the sextet and a seminarian, I was one of the few who rehearsed the most.

Unlike Philadelphia and other youth choir events, we didn’t have a set parish to go to for weekend services, so we were on our own. The three of us from Jordanville were all very tired, so we decided to stay at Holy Cross and attend the Sunday vespers there. It was a beautiful service with antiphonal Byzantine chant.

After vespers we were hungry, so we drove to West Roxbury and ended up eating at a Nepalese restaurant. We ordered curry, which we enjoyed while continuing to ask the passing waitresses where our drinks were. The goat curry I ordered tasted like…goat, I guess like a stronger version of lamb. In each bite bone shards threatened to lacerate my esophagus. I don’t recommend it as a meal for a date, or for any other occasion for that matter.

We realized that our host was at vigil at Holy Epiphany, where Metropolitan Hilarion was serving. So, we realized that we had to go to vigil after all. We drove to Roslindale, cassocked up, and strode into the church just in time for the end of the service. We got a  lot of looks from the other youth choir members in attendance wondering what in the world we were doing for the last two hours. “Well…it’s a little past the eleventh hour, but still!” I said.

That evening we stayed at Ilia Jarostchuk’s house to the north of Boston. Ilia played for the NFL, and pictures from various games adorned the walls of his well-furnished man-cave where we were going to spend the night. We stayed up late drinking tea and other potent potables and had (well, Fr. Ephraim, NK, and Ilia; I was exhausted) a thoughtful discussion about Holy Scripture and its various translations.

The next day we went to liturgy at Holy Cross again. The three of us did not receive communion, but an older lady standing next to me, a stranger, gave me a piece of antidoron. During lunch I got to make the acquaintance of Scott O’Rourke, the man behind the Orthodox Arts Journal and a student at Holy Cross. Then it was time for another rehearsal marathon. I spent the little bit of time before the final dress rehearsal lying in a comfy chair.

The dress rehearsal went well, with continual tweaking from our perfectionist (and always professional) choirmasters. I was happy to see things coming together. The Byzantine choirs were a great addition; in my opinion, we didn’t have enough of it in the Philadelphia concert.

Then came a short break, and then the concert. Dressed completely in black, we marched out onto the stage, music binders carefully held on our right sides. Nicky introduced the concert and we all opened our binders at the same time.

Then we began. Or, rather, I began. I gathered my strength and chanted: “Blessed is the man…alleluia.” The rest seemed to flow outward like a rushing river, which, as it changed course, at times became meandering and peaceful. At the end, we got a standing ovation. Success!

There was a reception set up in the lobby of the auditorium, but the three of us had to go back to Jordanville. So, we made our Russian-style goodbyes (sometimes more than once) and drove back up.

As I write this, somewhat sleep-deprived, I think of the wonderful new memories and the new friends I made this weekend. I am very grateful for everyone who came to sing and watch our concert, and to the people, who with their hard work and creativity, made last night a success.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Thrice-Festive Day

Today we celebrated the patronal feast of our seminary, indeed of all Orthodox seminaries: the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. The Three Hierarchs have always been considered patrons of learning, and their feast is a public holiday in Greece.

We had been preparing for weeks for the feast, especially in Greek class. Fr. Cyprian, our resident Greek hieromonk and dean of students, had us practice Byzantine chant (in Western notation) and various readings from the vigil in Greek. This year, I had one of the Old Testament readings. My class also did preparations for the formal reception following the festal liturgy. We went to Utica to get food and other supplies, and helped set up the hall for the reception.

The vigil and liturgy went very smoothly. Metropolitan Hilarion was here for the feast, so it was an appropriate level of dignity. The vigil seamlessly transitioned between Byzantine chant and our familiar Slavonic melodies. Many of the prayers and readings were in Greek. The liturgy had less Greek in it (excepting the Gospel reading and several priestly exclamations) but incorporated a sort of pre-1453 feel to it, with lots of ancient Russian and Bulgarian melodies as well as some Byzantine thrown in. From what I witnessed, things in the altar also went more or less smoothly, even with the presence of our First Hierarch.

Before the liturgy I was tonsured as a Reader, for now attached to the monastery cathedral. The office of Reader, as you well know, is the first degree of the priesthood, and unlike, say, a seminarian, there are certain canonical obligations for readers, as I discovered while reading an issue (v. 62, n. 1) of Orthodox Life. For example, I can’t gamble, raise my hand in violence against anyone, or marry outside the faith. There’s even a stipulation that I have an “immaculate living place,” which gives me another reason to clean my room. Don’t worry, I won’t pretentiously sign my posts as Reader John Martin, especially since many of my fellow seminarians are readers. But I would like your prayers.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at a reader’s tonsure. I arrived in church before nine o’clock, with my formal petition to be made a reader in hand. This petition is mainly for the purpose of monastery records. I waited in the vestry to the right of the altar, where I saw Pete, who was being made a sub-deacon right after my tonsure. We talked a little about when he got made a reader, not too long ago, and about the epistle reading we do during the tonsure which supposedly foretells our future ecclesiastical career: “It’s superstition! But my reading was from 1 Timothy, which says, ‘Let no one despise your youth…’” We were then made to go out on the right kliros and sing for the vesting of the Metropolitan. I had to then go to the left kliros and wait for the moment in the middle of the Sixth Hour. Peter and I were then led down to the center of the church to Metropolitan. I came first, as I was being appointed to a lesser office. During the tonsure it almost felt like it was being someone else’s hair being clipped, someone else having a book placed in one’s hand, someone else reading in Church Slavonic.

My reading, which I had to look up later, was the first few verses of 2 Timothy, which go:
Child Timothy, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier…
I closed the book. “The Servant of God John is made a reader of the Church of the Holy Trinity!” pronounced Vladika.

After the liturgy, there was a long reception, in which we sang several hymns in honor of the martyred Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Vladika Hilarion shared his remembrances with the gathered assembly, and Fr. George Dragas, the visiting protopresbyter and sometime Jordanville professor, gave a discourse on the Three Holy Hierarchs, the luminaries of faith, who derive their teaching from the Holy Trinity. For me, it sort of tied into the reading I did: “…the things thou hast heard of me…the same commit thou to faithful men…” Then Fr. Vladimir, the head of our library and archives, announced the scholarship recipients. Many of us got scholarships, including me, thankfully.

It was a good day.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Selected Rules of Behavior for Seminarians

Found in the Holy Trinity Seminary Student Handbook, ca. 1990. These are very high standards, and perhaps some are hard to attain, but they are good to have.

1. Remember that preparation for the priesthood is preparation for the very highest service: no vocation on earth is higher than the priesthood.
2. If every profession requires knowledge and definite skill, this must also be said of the priesthood. It is many-sided. It imposes an extraordinary accountability before God. The function of the priesthood takes place openly before everyone: the priest is like a candle standing upon a candlestand.
3. From those preparing to be pastors the Church expects:
A. Steadfast Christian motivation
B. A Christian attitude of mind and corresponding education
C. A moral way of life: he who is preparing to guide others must himself be an example of virtue.
4. Therefore:
A. Learn and carry in your heart the highest forms of priestly service in the Church of Christ.
B. Love the Church and delve deeply into the content of the Services: in that way you will become aware of and understand the grandeur and grace of the Church’s services.
C. Be constant and attentive in saying your private daily prayers.
D. Develop all sides of your soul: mind, will, and senses.
E. Do not allow impure thoughts to enter either your mind or your heart, or attract your will.
F. Be temperate.
G. Do not swear; do not smoke; do not use alcohol; do not leave the seminary grounds without the permission of your superior.
H. Have respect for those senior to you, your teachers and instructors and also all members of the monastic brotherhood.
I. Be friendly toward everyone, and always be ready to help one another whenever you can.
J. Diligently study the subjects you are being taught, gathering necessary knowledge and acquiring practical skills.
K. Make it your responsibility to keep the fasts and other rules of the Church.
5. A man’s character is formed by the acquisition of habits. Therefore you must strengthen your will in all that is good. Acquire good habits by strict submission to the rules for seminarians and by careful fulfillment of your duties.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Strange Case of Fr. Vladimir Owens

My new obedience (in addition to my bookstore duty) is researcher for the monastery. I’m looking through old magazines and newspapers, compiling sources for an eventual Wikipedia article. It’s been a lot of fun.

One of the biggest surprises I came across was when, looking through Google Books, I noticed Jordanville being mentioned in, of all places, Jet and Ebony magazines, which both published for African-Americans. In it, I found two articles on a Fr. Vladimir Owens, apparently the first black priest of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Fr. Vladimir, born Robert, was originally Catholic. But after studying Russian at Kent State (so the articles say), he got interested in Orthodoxy and converted. After his conversion he attended seminary at Jordanville from 1960–1965. Then he got ordained as a priest and served at St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York City, serving in Spanish for a sizable (56 people) group of Puerto Rican Orthodox.

The story ends in 1968, with these two articles. I wasn’t able to find out information on Fr. Vladimir after that. But, stumbling on the Orthodox History in the Americas website, I discovered that Matthew Namee, an Orthodox historian, has already done research “for years.” It turns out that Fr. Vladimir was some kind of con-man who eventually ended up getting thrown in prison. This still raises some questions:
  • Who was he, really? And did he really go to Jordanville?
  • What about the Puerto Ricans Orthodox community? How did they come into existence, and are there remnants of the community today?
The plot thickens…