The Oak of Mamre and the Hospitality of Abraham

Here below is a photo of the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham at the Oak of Mamre that is inside the entrance to the main building at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Christian Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY. Just below the golden-covered icon, behind the red vigil lamp, is a dark patch that is a piece of wood from the Oak of Mamre in the Holy Land, the site of a Russian Orthodox monastery. The wood relic of the Tree was a gift from Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to Holy Trinity Monastery, which in its rural location (see also the photo of a gate onto its grounds below) holds a unique place in the global history of the Russian diaspora in the past century, and in American spiritual life today. This year celebrating its ninetieth anniversary, it is a place formed in faith, in persecution, and in the experience of the mystical truths of ancient and still living and embodied Christianity, in the dairy country of upstate New York.

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Jordanville as a place name was known throughout the former Soviet Union for its Orthodox Christian publications during the Communist Soviet era, when it was the only place in the world that could typeset in Church Slavonic. Those publications often were smuggled into the USSR and circulated to faithful readers, families, and congregations at risk from the murderous totalitarian atheist regime. It also happens to be on land that some hydrologists regard as the source of the Susquehanna River’s main stem, near which I write downstream in central Pennsylvania today.

This is the centennial year of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), which emerged by crossing its own Red Sea or River Jordan, when many of its founding Bishops among about 150,000 refugees crossed the Black Sea from Crimea to Constantinople fleeing the militant atheist Bolshevist Red Army and secret police. In a former imperial battleship off Constantinople, the founding Synod of the Church in exile formed what became ROCOR, following a blessing from Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow, later a Saint-Martyr to Bolshevism, to found emergency Church government in the crisis of the Red Terror. The Synod in exile moved first to Yugoslavia, and then when Communism came there after World War II in 1946, to New York City, with its main monastery and seminary upstate at Jordanville (the monastery being augmented by new arrivals after the war, and her seminary having been founded in 1948).

The Russian Civil War’s equivalent of Dunkirk: The flotilla on which the Russian Church in Exile was founded a hundred years ago. The strategic retreat ended up being a hard-fought victory in spiritual warfare.

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Seeing the icon and the relic of the Oak of Mamre at Jordanville, which were pointed out to me by a Scottish Russian Orthodox monk and friend, Fr. Theodore at the monastery, reminded me of how Orthodox Christianity provides the experience of place in faith. Here in this monastery originally of exiles many in North America find a spiritual home, including non-Russians or members of blended Russian-American families such as myself. Fr. Theodore and I share a special veneration for St. Kentigern of Glasgow, my monk friend’s birthplace before he saw the world in the Royal Navy, and then became a monastic settling ultimately at Holy Trinity in Jordanville. My own study of  early Celtic saints and Christianity led me both to Orthodox Christianity and to St. Kentigern as one of my two baptismal names (the other being for the Jewish-Greek-Roman Apostle Paul of Tarsus).

Monk Theodore, a Glasgow native now in Jordanville NY

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Just before taking this photo of Fr. Theodore, I was talking with Fr. Deacon Andrew Doubleday, who was helping me with liturgical training. Father Andrew, who lives near Jordanville and serves at the Russian Monastery’s beautiful Cathedral Church, dedicated also to the Holy Trinity, is a distant cousin of General Abner Doubleday, who according to legend invented America’s national sport of baseball in nearby Cooperstown, NY. Down the road from the monastery is the little Jordanville public library, dedicated in the early twentieth century by Theodore Roosevelt. Here old Yankee dairy country meets ancient Christian monastic traditions from Russia, whose first practitioners locally found the area reminded them of their homeland, lost to Marxist-Leninism, in the western reaches of the old Russian Empire. One of the two co-founders of the monastery 90 years ago, Hieromonk Panteleimon (Nizhnik) wrote:

I went up the wooded hill a few times, relished the quietude around me and gazed upon our property: an old, windowless, two-storey little house and a well, and four other wells in various spots—and that was it, forest and quiet all around; the wilderness. My first purchase, I remember, was a small metal teakettle. I would exit the house into the yard, I remember; I would ignite some logs between three stones and put the kettle with water on top, while I would go to Jordanville to buy food.

Christianity and Sacred Place

Orthodox tradition lends itself to a sense of sacred place, integrating the seen and the unseen. Gathered in spiritual community in faith around the world, tens of millions of Orthodox Christians participate in the same Divine Liturgy (in different languages) at their own holy places, a Liturgy dating back in core form to the early Christian Church of the Holy Land. The icon at the entrance to Holy Trinity Monastery is a reminder of the roots of the Church and her ascetic and liturgical practices going back all the way into the Old Testament, which places Abraham in the 22nd century before Christ, with the burial place of him and his family being in the land promised to him by God near Mamre in Hebron. Orthodox Christianity see God’s covenant with Abraham as fulfilled in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Church whose rituals and designs include aspects of Old Testament symbolism and worship.

As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…. By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, that in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

The Oak of Mamre as depicted at the entrance to Holy Trinity Monastery, is featured in what is probably Russia’s most famous icon, by St. Andrei Rublev, the Hospitality of Abraham, also known as the icon of the Holy Trinity, from the early 15th century, pictured below. St. Andrei was a young contemporary of St. Sergius of Radonezh, who founded a monastery in Russian forests, in which the landscape of trees became the equivalent of the Egyptian and Arabian and Palestinian deserts where earlier desert fathers had lived. That forest monastery became Sergei Posad, the great monastic center of the Patriarchy of Moscow, whose ancestry traces back through Byzantium to the Apostolic Church in the Holy Land.

The Hospitality of Abraham by St. Andrei Rublev

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The icon portrays the visit by Angels to the Holy Patriarch Abraham at the tree, an account understood by Orthodox Christian commentators to be a pre-Incarnation theophany of Jesus Christ, whose type is interpreted in the middle figure below the tree, itself considered a type of the Cross as the Tree of Life in Paradise, also in turn considered by Church Fathers to be a type of Christ. The icon famously portrays the Russian Orthodox Christian experience of sobornost, a union of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity in love, as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, which is a mystery that cannot be directly depicted.

Two of the figures being hosted by the Holy Patriarch Abraham bow toward the figure on the left, interpreted as a type of God the Father. Colors indicate the symbolism of the three, with the one on the right primarily clad in green, a color identified with the Holy Spirit. Trees and greenery also figure in the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, identified with the Holy Spirit and also the Holy Trinity, as seen in this picture from the interior of Holy Trinity Monastery’s Church sanctuary from a few years ago on Pentecost.

Pentecost at Jordanville a few years ago. Trees inside the Church are part of traditional Russian Orthodox Christian celebration both of the founding of the Church of the New Testament and of the Holy Spirit and of the Holy Trinity.

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Trees function partly also as symbols of Paradise, and do so also in the “Church forests” of Ethiopia, whose Orthodox churches, while not in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church due to differences between their Monophysite heritage and Orthodox theology, are historically closely related in their outlook and practices.

A “Church forest” in Ethiopia

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Trees are long-lived beings on earth, and evoke a sense of hidden deep roots and life in the upper canopy also mainly hidden to humans, suggestive of spiritual truths in Christianity. To be well grounded in faith is also to lift up prayer to heaven, and St. John of Damascus among others wrote of the Tree of Life as symbolizing Jesus Christ’s redemption of mankind, lifting up our eyes to the Lord Who Ascended as fully God and fully man, bringing humanity into the hope of heaven, as seen also in the Dormition of His Mother commemorated as the “summer Pascha,” Herself being the greatest of saints, the Most Holy Theotokos. Her story, that of both the Second Eve and the Mother of God, was rooted too in the Old Testament genealogies going back to Adam and Eve in Paradise, through her parents the Ancestors of God, Saints Joachim and Anna.

Christ takes the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God to heaven in this icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Her body also then was taken up according to Orthodox Church tradition.

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How many of our early childhood memories in fact involve trees in our first sense of place as nurturing experience? Christian understanding of this is not pantheistic but in terms of how embodied living symbolism in God’s creation connects us ultimately to Him. As Dostoevsky noted in The Brothers Karamazov, even one such good memory from childhood can be enough to save someone later in life who has become jaded and traumatized by hard experience. The character Alexei, a novice monk, voices this near the end of the novel when addressing a group of children. Alexei Karamazov is sometimes described by scholars as partly modeled on Dostoevsky’s friend the controversial Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyev, along with his brother Ivan, the intellectual who has lost his faith. It is Ivan who challenges Alexei’s faith by asking why God allows the suffering of children. Alexei answers by the influence of his elder Zosima’s love on his own life, passing that love along to the children in the village in their struggles. That “active love” is an experiential, existentially Christian answer to Ivan’s intellectual question. All that Ivan could offer was the cynical totalitarian system of the Grand Inquisitor in his famous fable of how people need (in his view) material assurance, not freedom in God. In the end, he is drawn to Alexei’s love, which the exiled Russian Orthodox philosopher S.L. Frank called “spiritual activism,” as opposed to the nihilistic revolutionary activism that attracted non-believing intellectuals like himself in later nineteenth-century Russia, with disastrous results.

Exile and Otherworldly Meaning

In the novel, the Elder Zosima describes the Christian experience of place in this way:

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies.

S.L. Frank in his book The Fall of the Idols, in a selection published in English in his The Meaning of Life, describes a “strange love” in exile of a homeland that no longer exists, which is perhaps a modern condition, but also echoes the experience of Abraham, and of mankind generally, following the fall and exclusion from Paradise.

This relates to the diasporic experience of Russian Orthodoxy in the past century, seen at Jordanville. In relation to this, it’s worth noting that, besides Solovyev, another possible historical model for Dostoevsky’s character of Alexei has been offered. In line with his “fantastic realism” technique, Dostoevsky did model his characters on historical composites, such as likely drawing on aspects of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk and Elder Ambrose of Optina for Alexei’s Elder Zosima. Another prototype proposed for the character of Alexei himself was a young man named Alexei also, eager in Christian love, a Church reformer who became an ardent supporter of tradition during and after the revolution, and who had encountered Dostoevsky in person as a young man: Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, the founding First Hierarch of the Russian Church Outside of Russia. Metropolitan Anthony in later years wrote with special emphasis on the redemptive aspect of Christ’s willingness to accept God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane, alone at night in the garden accepting the need to sacrifice Himself for God’s will and for mankind, when it is said the Savior sweated as if blood.

Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky

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Place versus Space

The upstate New York philosopher Edward Casey has described “place” in his book The Fate of Place as shaped by personal experience of landscape, unlike the impersonal modern secular sense of space that claims to globalize the world. Indeed, the scene of the Hospitality of Abraham (indicated by the tree and mountain and house, symbolic of Temple, in the background of the icon) was made possible by the Holy Patriarch’s kindness to guests, strangers who were angels and more. Abraham’s “active love,” which Orthodox Christians accept as both historical and symbolic, typed the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, seen in the account of his night watch in the Garden of Gethsemane. Dostoevsky sought to portray such active love in modern fiction by Alexei Karamazov, whose story was set in the real Russian town where Dostoevsky summered, as part of the writer’s “fantastic realism” technique, highlighting aspects of Orthodox iconographic art in the novel form.

The experience of place as linking physical and otherworldly experience in Christian tradition is one that with God’s grace and ascetic struggle dissolves and transfigures the fallen objectification of Creation and other human beings, through spiritual relationship with our Lord, and with one another, in sobornost. By contrast to the Hospitality of Abraham, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah included their abuse and intended wickedness toward the two angel guests from among the three figures who visited Abraham at the oak. In Sodom, Abraham’s kin Lot and his family were not so well prepared through faith for hospitality to the heavenly guests as was Abraham. While seeking to protect his guests, Lot was seemingly confused by the evil morals of his city to offer his daughters immorally to save them, later falling prey to drunkenness and his daughters’ own immoral acts, even as his wife made the fatal mistake of looking back at the city they had to flee due its evils, becoming a pillar of salt in the sight of its destruction.

Ultimately, the landscape of faith evident at Jordanville includes a kind of transfiguration of the Russian Golgotha in the twentieth century, which involved the deaths of tens of millions at the hands of Communism, many of them Orthodox Christians targeted directly because of their faith or indirectly because they did not “fit” the totalitarian system, in the hope of Resurrection. As with all such times of persecution, the tree of faith took new roots around the world, and bore new leaves and fruit in places like upstate New York. Today, the Orthodox Church in Russia is in a state of renewal also. Now the monastery and seminary at Jordanville, spiritual center of the former anticommunist Russian Orthodox Church in exile, and back in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole, stand testimony to the spiritual power of that same mystical love of God and the sobornost of His Church, symbolized in the Hospitality of Abraham at the oak of Mamre in ancient times far away.

The former exile Church on her centennial offers needed new witness against rising cultural totalitarianism and self-destructive materialism in the West. To the latter’s placelessness, she offers a renewed meaningful experience of incarnate spiritual place, expressing how the hospitality of sobornost beneath the Oak of Mamre typed the Cross of Jesus Christ, where mystical hierarchy and conciliarity join in His Body, the Church.

In Christianity, the experience of love is the experience of place.

When in The Brothers Karamazov Alexei at his nadir experiences a dream-vision of the newly reposed Elder Zosima at the Wedding of Cana during the reading of the Psalms over his body, the Elder explains that he is there at the wedding banquet with Jesus Christ and His Mother because he “gave a little onion”–a metaphor in the book for a small act of generous kindness–and Alexei, too. Afterward, outside the hermitage, among the stars of God’s Creation, Alexei falls to the earth, watering it with his tears, and then arose from his troubles, as if resurrected there, in that experience of the intersection of the otherworld and this world:

He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards…

So struggle and love intersect with grace to beget place.

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