A recent online discussion renewed the perennial and controversial modern topic of God the Father in Orthodox Christian iconography, as a bearded ancient.
My former Scripture instructor in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s online Pastoral School, Fr. John Whiteford, has this excellent overview of the issue. It links to a further in-depth discussion of the background by the writer Vladimir Moss, which is not affected by the schismatic advocacy of some of his other writing.
I’d recommend reading both pieces, which illustrate complexity and nuances in the discussion, about which a book-length treatment here sums up the criticisms of Orthodox “Ancient of Days” iconography in much online discussion today.
Basically, the controversy has centered around whether portrayal of God the Father as the “Lord of Hosts” or “Ancient of Days” in much Orthodox iconography found in Eastern lands (particularly Russia but also in Greece in centuries following the Fall of Constantinople) is non-canonical or even heretical. Some view the Ancient of Days figure as being properly of Christ.
The issue involves whether the “nature” of God the Father is portrayed, when un-portrayable, or whether the figure of the Father as a Divine Person in the Trinity can be symbolized as seen by the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. The name “Ancient of Days” and with it “Lord of Hosts” is also identified with the Holy Trinity as a whole in Church Tradition.
An added aspect, I would add, is that the relationship being portrayed in such iconography, between the figure of our Lord God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, with our Lord the Holy Spirit, is, as in St. Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity “The Hospitality of Abraham,” not essentializing in nature, but within the bounds of Orthodox apophatic theology. However, the depiction of God the Father by nature was specifically prohibited by two local but pan-Orthodox councils of the Church in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Orthodox scholar Eric Jobe has offered a review of the issues, in which he concludes that “The One Essence of God cannot be depicted in a direct manner, but the idea of it may be referenced symbolically through these eidos [idea-depicted-as-symbol] icons. Nevertheless, these icons remain on the cusp of canonical permissibility, and they should be treated with caution.” What Dr. Jobe calls eidos icons could also be considered including figures of theophanies in the Old Testament, such as the vision to Daniel of the Ancient of Days, most often interpreted by Church Fathers as typology of God the Father.
Holy Trinity Monastery’s temple in Jordanville NY has a beautiful icon of the Trinity with God the Father, and also another type of the same featured above the altar, which is visible in the photo below at the top behind the Cross. The ceiling iconography is especially breathtaking as part of a sequence related to the Trinity.
The sequence begins below with Jesus Christ in Divine Council with the Theotokos on His right and St. John the Forerunner (last of the Old Testament Prophets) on His left and other saints around with the Holy Spirit prominently above as a dove. Then above that the viewer sees a version of Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham, in which the theophany figure of Christ bows to an angel as representing the Father as it is often interpreted. Then, on the high ceiling area, Jesus Christ as a child sits on the lap of God the Father, with the Holy Spirit as a dove in the middle. In a cultural age like ours in a “global West” bereft of strong symbols of Fatherhood, lifting one’s eyes in this sequence especially can catch a faithful viewer off-guard, in recognition of the mystery of the Trinity.
A number of icons with the depiction of the Ancient of Days have been wonder-working over the centuries, including the Kursk Root icon. Their beauty and miracle-working inform Orthodox Christian tradition. Truly, God’s ways are mysterious, and one can love and venerate such icons while being aware of the ultimate mystery of the Holy Trinity, communicated by canonical warnings, as being beyond human ken.
(The photo above was taken this past week on the Feast of St. Vladimir, on my unworthy first-year anniversary of ordination as a Deacon, with my mentor and friend Fr. Felipe Balingit, with whom I had the blessing to serve; you can see the beautiful image of God the Father right behind the Cross, with — not mainly visible due to the Cross– the figure of the child Jesus Christ in His lap and the Holy Spirit symbolized by a dove.)
“Ecosemiotics.com” being the address of this blog, and “Christian ecosemiotics” one of its themes, raise the question “what is ecosemiotics and why is it related to this blog?” The answer is that ecosemiotics is a secular field of academic study today about the relation of cultural signs and natural life, most actively represented in the work of semiotic studies at Tartu University in Estonia. Years ago this blog started with a focus on issues of culture, environment, and faith, which it still has, but with increasing emphasis on considering how traditional Orthodox Christianity informs and transfigures modern secular views of culture and nature. This is a conversation that has occurred across centuries and even millennia (counting the Old Testament prophets and also ancient non-Christian philosophers whose work was adapted into the Hellenic-Christian synthesis or which parallels aspects of that discussion, as explored in the book Christ the Eternal Tao by Abbot Damascene Christiansen). But the work in secular scholarship of my friend and colleague Prof. Timo Maran at Tartu, who is not an Orthodox Christian or responsible in any way for my views here, as a very astute and discerning scholar, helps to keep the field of ecosemiotics academically vibrant and open to those like myself who wish to explore connections with faith and Orthodox Christianity. I am indebted as an academic to his work, and also as someone who aspires unworthily to explore Christian apologetic theology in my work.
I have linked here before to his recent book Ecosemiotics in the Cambridge Elements series on environmental humanities, but wanted to highlight it front-and-center for those interested in the topic of study, as an excellent concise overview and introduction. I even unworthily received a short mention in the book, for which I am appreciative, with regard to my coining the term “ecosemiosphere” in my edited collection Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, which also featured one of Prof. Maran’s insightful essays.
Prof. Maran’s essay elsewhere on “nature-text” (encapsulated in the diagram from his article immediately below) is very helpful in terms of my studies of Christian literature. His new book adds the rightful qualifier that the relationship of the “fourfold” of meaningfulness he proposed in the article (overlapping contexts of author, reader, environment, and text) can be unpacked in multiple forms of influences and reception, specifically beyond beyond the necessarily shorthand categories of “author” and “reader.” I would add the same is true also of “text” (in the sense of intertextuality) and “environment” (cultural, social, natural, and, from a Christian standpoint, spiritual but also incarnationally cosmic Creation). In any case, the ecosemiotic approach offers an alternative in secular discourse to the reductionist materialism found in much academic thought today, by viewing communication exchange and information as basic to life. Here, the diagram suggests a model for thinking of the context of meaning in life in a fourfold.
For the Christian, “author” can ultimately mean God, and “text” His logoi. Landscape and the contexts of our life can be included in “environment,” and so forth. These are fluid and suggestive terms, but illustrate an overlap between God’s cosmic language of Creation and our experience of Creation as human beings, suggesting how our identity is relational with God and secondarily with one another, in what Russian Orthodox Christians call sobornost, the spiritual unity of communion.
What distinguishes this from conventional Western semiotics is the link between “sign” and “environment”–unlike much of what the English-speaking world knows about semiotics, the relation between the two is not merely internal and an arbitrary binary alone. There is a relationship. In fact, the American polymath Charles Peirce, whose devotion to Trinitarian Christianity paralleled his interest in developing a “triadic” semiotics that influenced today’s ecosemiotics: Sign, Object, Interpretant. Maran’s model changes the names of Sign to Text, and Object to Environment, and unpacks the “Interpretant” into Author and Reader, but Peirce’s work helps underlie his, as well.
One classic early article by another pioneer in the field, Winfried Nöth, simply titled “Ecosemiotics,” mentioned the “pansemiotism” of medieval literature, that is its sense of all-meaningful sign-filled Creation. This is the area of a “Venn diagram” in my view between patristic Christian literature and secular ecosemiotic studies today. Traditional Christian cosmology (exemplified in St. Maximus the Confessor’s discussion of the Logos and logoi) affords a dynamic transfigurative sense of Creation as dynamic inter-related and embodied meaning, incarnationally yet apophatically (mystically) iconographic, governed by God.
In the short mention of me in his new book, Prof. Maran quotes my view that an “ecosemiosphere literally means an ecological bubble of meaning (borrowing the term ‘semiosphere’ from semiotics. It involves not a ‘reenchantment’ of nature, but recognition as a meld of physical and cultural communication, which can be considered spiritual as well as material.”
Contextually, my view is that the development of ecosemiotics in the Baltic region is not coincidental, given its position in the rich Estonian cultural zone between ancient Orthodox and Western cultural zones there. The adaptability in my view of ecosemiotic thinking to Orthodox cosmology reflects the historical cultural contexts of what has been termed (back to Soviet times) the “Tartu-Moscow” school of semiotics–semiotics being, as with the work of the “crypto-Orthodox” renowned scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, an area of academic work that was considered relatively “safe” for those dissenting from Soviet materialism, yet “non-Western” in reflecting aspects of Eastern Christian cultural that emphasize a view of being as incarnationally communicative energy with the divine, rather than the Western Scholastic sense of being as more a conceptual analogy to the divine.
Homily for the commemoration of the Holy Royal Martyrs, given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on July 4, 7529 (July 17, 2021 on the civil calendar). Please consider giving to our building fund.
Today is the Fourth of July on the Old Calendar, and on it we commemorate the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, witnesses to the true Orthodox Christian faith against the Bolshevik terror of atheism, nihilism, and demonic destruction. That the Fourth of July and their witness be linked together on our Church calendar is a meaningful coincidence. For the Holy Royal Martyrs remind us today of true freedom, which is voluntary service to the truth, in the Person of Jesus Christ, Who says to us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “Ye shall know the truth,” our Lord and Savior told us, “and the truth shall make you free.”
The witness of the Holy Royal Martyrs reminds us today, as Orthodox Christians in North America, of the witness required of us in the secular West of the 21st century, with its rising communism, anarchy, nihilism, demonic trends, and totalitarian spirit. We ask their intercession fervently for wisdom in discerning the signs of the times, and in witnessing with love in truth to our Savior and His Church. The opposition of the world we face today is the same as they faced and the same as Christians have faced throughout time, even as prefigured in the trials of the Old Testament Church. But today the last of the major kingdoms dedicated to God and His Christ has fallen, more than a century ago now. Today we face more directly in these latter days the spirit of Anti-Christ that denies that God has come in the flesh to save the world, and His Body the Church. We must pray each day and work to bring others to the Orthodox Church, our ark in these times of troubles, for in such evangelism we will save lives and cover a multitude of our sins, glory to God.
The opposition we face today comes through open hostility increasingly, but more deadly it comes from within in the form of materialistic so-called comforts and a drugging of our souls in consumer pleasures and fun. It is no coincidence that many corporations are adopting atheistic forms of Marxism as their ethos, for materialistic atheism comes at us both in modern forms of communism and in its supposed opposed, materialistic consumerism. Lust for power and profit, manipulating others and God’s creation, makes idols of technology, in what is called technocracy.
Today, miraculously, Russia has become the only major world power still to have an openly Christian culture, and America, which used to attest in a heterodox sense to Christianity as the source of her culture, struggles amid what some call the post-Christian West. We are Russian Orthodox Christians today not because we are Russian but to attest to the witness of our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to our Lord amid the forces of darkness in this age.
Brothers and sisters, let us be alert and let us remember the example of the Holy Royal Martyrs. At the end, stripped of the pomp and glory and power of empire, they stood against the Bolsheviks as one pious and humble Orthodox Christian family. They remind us of how each home, like a little monastery, is a little Church and a little kingdom, as is our parish as a Church family. And each of us, whether we know it or not, is on the front line of spiritual warfare today as much as the Tsar and his family in 1918. Today, on this spiritual Fourth of July, let us re-dedicate ourselves to the freedom offered to us by our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, and to our time for daily prayer, our continual reliance on the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, to guidance from our spiritual father, to regular Church attendance and study of God’s word and the lives of the saints, and to helpful spiritual works such as the book Unseen Warfare compiled by St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.
I wish to close with a few words offered for this day in a homily by a monk at Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia, and a few selections from the Vigil service. From the monastery homily:
Everything filthy and paltry and sinful which could be found in the human soul was summoned against the Tsar and against Russia. All of this, with all its might, rose up in struggle against the Royal Crown, which was crowned by a cross, for Royal service is bearing of the Cross.People always rise up against the Cross by means of slander and falsehood, doing the devil’s work, for, according to the word of the Lord Jesus Christ, When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own; for he is a liar, and the father of lies (John 8:44). Everything was roused up against the most meek, pure and abundantly-loving Tsar, so that at the terrible hour of the struggle against him he would remain alone. Filthy slanders were spread before and against the Tsar and his family, so that the people would grow cold towards him. Faithless allies took part in the conspiracy. When the Sovereign was in need of moral support, his closest associates did not provide it and violated their oath. Some took part in the conspiracy; others, out of weakness, counseled abdication. The Tsar remained completely alone, surrounded by “treachery, baseness and cowardice.” From the day of the abdication, everything began to collapse. It could not have been otherwise. The one who united everything, who stood guard for the Truth, was overthrown. A sin was committed, and now sin had easy access.
And from the Vigil Service for today’s feast:
When the grievous time of trials began in Russia, thou didst beseech the Queen who reigneth and helpeth, O holy passion-bearer Nicholas, that she take the royal authority into her own hands. For the blood of thee and of thy family and servants crieth out unnto the Lord with the suffering ones of the land of Russia, for Christ to accept it in exchange for the forgiveness of sins, through the supplications of the Theotokos and of thee….
The counsels of God are not like the counsels of men, saith the Lord; for He casteth one down and exalteth another; the Lord killeth and giveth life, and He raiseth up the poor man from the earth, giving him a throne of glory. Thus did the Lord prepare His beloved favorite Nicholas, rewarding him for his piety, and causing him to dwell in the heavens after his path of the cross, that he might pray for the salvation of his people….
O Kindly Mother of the Light, beseech thy Son and our God, that He establish in our nation the throne of an Orthodox king, that He preserve it in peace and prosperity, that He deliver us from civil strife, and strengthen the Holy Church, delivering it from unbelief, schism and heresies….
Thou wast shown to be an imitator of the intercessor of Myra in Lycia, O right faithful Tsar; for, fulfilling the Gospel of Christ, thou didst lay down thy life for thy people, and didst spare the guilty, even those guilty of murder. For these things thou hast been sanctified by the blood of martyrdom, as a great martyr of the Church of Christ…
Like a solicitous father and mother ye visited your infirm soldiers, comforted them with love, and with your tears watered the place of their repose.
O spiritual garden, ye perfect seven, icon of the Orthodox family: ye are for us an image of the virtues and the glory of the Russian land….
Thy princes on chariots and horse fell; but we have risen up from our sins and by the name of the Lord have set ourselves aright. Wherefore, in repentance we cry out to thee: Save us O Lord, and hearken unto us, if only today we call upon our holy martyred tsar.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us! Amen
So wrote the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, 3:17. This verse stood out on the afternoon of the Fourth of July 2021 (Orthodox Church calendar, June 21, 7529), as I sat reading some of the Apostle’s writings, along a sun-drenched bike trail in our rural northern Appalachian area in central Pennsylvania (known affectionately or dismissively as “Pennsyltucky”), between a trip to our Cathedral for Divine Liturgy that morning and a night-time fireworks display along Penns Creek in the country near our local Russian Orthodox Christian mission’s land.
Spiritual Coincidences on the Fourth of July
On the American Fourth this year (June 21 on the Church’s Julian calendar), the Russian Orthodox Church worldwide commemorated All Saints of the Russian land, marking the Second Sunday after Pentecost (the First Sunday after Pentecost commemorates All Saints generally). Commemorations on the American Fourth this year thus included the many martyrs to Communism who triumphed in their faith, as Russia has re-emerged with the help of their prayers to become the major country in the world today with an openly Christian culture, as the West including America seems entering an aggressively anti-Christian cultural era. But those saints also included a small number who found their way to North America in pre-revolutionary days when the Russian Church provided a unifying diocesan framework and financial support for American Orthodoxy, and also later exiles, blazing the trail for our mission and others.
But also, July 4 on the Church’s Julian calendar is the date of the murders of the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, the royal family killed in 1918 by Bolshevik terrorists. (That is July 17 on the civil calendar in general use in America; the Bolsheviks changed the calendar from Julian to Gregorian style in nearly 1918, moving dates 13 days later, but the Church retained the old calendar for its sacred time.) So the Fourth of July on the Church calendar also marks the killings that signaled the establishment of the most deadly totalitarian movement in world history, and the spiritual triumph of the Christian martyrs over it. (Sadly many secular-minded Western intellectuals continue to engage positively with that murderous atheist movement’s ideology, even as the mass-murdering Chinese Communist regime survives as its worldly power.)
Indeed, the conjunction of the American and Russian meanings of the Fourth of July this weekend, on both sacred and civil calendars, highlights the Apostle’s words: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” That’s because their overlap highlights the underlying real nature of freedom, as service to truth, not self-assertion, including witnessing against atheistic totalitarianism.
This year, the Fourth also came a day after our Northern Appalachian mission’s feast day, commemorating St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who reposed July 2 on the civil calendar. His feast is honored on the nearest Saturday, this year on July 3. His life personified the triumph of the Orthodox Christian faith over massive atheistic terrorism in the past century. A refugee from Communist Russia, he cared for his flock in exile in China, including a large community of orphans under his care. When the Communists took control of China, he brought the orphans safely across the Pacific, ultimately settling with them in San Francisco, while even traveling to the Capitol in Washington, DC, to hep them find legal safe haven.
St. John inspired both many Russian exiles and many American converts to Orthodoxy in the West, including the former nihilist Fr. Seraphim Rose of 1960s California (regarded by many now unofficially as also a saint), whose writings and life after his conversion under the influence of St. John went on to inspire many worldwide, including my own unworthy conversion to Orthodoxy from being a lapsed American Christian Scientist. St. John reposed in 1966, revered by many as a loving spiritual father, a barefoot holy fool, a builder of the cathedral in San Francisco and renewer of the veneration of ancient saints of the West in the Orthodox Church, and a miracle worker through his intercessory prayers before and after death. The greatest demonic principalities and powers could not overcome his faith and love, nor sunder his flock from his care. Nor could the forces of evil erase the Church that Jesus Christ founded in Russia and elsewhere. The Orthodox Church, has spread further throughout the world as a result of that persecution and the prayers of her martys.
On the Saturday for observance of the feast of St. John, this year July 3 on the civil calendar, we were blessed to gather for worship in downtown Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, with His Grace Bishop Ncholas of Manhattan and the visiting miraculous Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God the Sign from the 13th century, witness to many significant events in Russian and world history. It was under this same icon that St. John reposed, and our mission icon displayed at each service of our local Church shows our patron saint holding the icon.
Then, after lunch, we traveled to our mission land and cemetery in nearby rural Winfield, PA, for Vladyka Nicholas to dedicate the Cross at our building site. Our mission is the first Orthodox Christian parish in Union County and in the Susquehanna River confluence area, where the West and Main branches join a short distance to the south. (The Main Branch starts according to hydrologists on the cypress marshes on the grounds of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, New York, a spiritual center of our Church in North America.) It is the first Russian Orthodox parish in central Pennsylvania.
As the Bishop began his dedication, a short but intense downpour descended, as can be seen in the sequence of photos below: A cleansing like a baptism, a multiplication of the holy-water blessing. Bishop Nicholas reminded us to follow St. John in our dedication to prayer and evangelism. May God prosper our humble missionary efforts in northern Appalachian America through His grace and love for mankind.
A secular celebration of liberty is not enough
The overlay of the sacred calendar of Orthodox Christianity with the time of America’s Fourth of July reminds us that any secular celebration of liberty is not enough. The martyrdom of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II and his family marked the end of the great Christian empire and successor to the earlier Roman Christian Empire known as Byzantium, a legacy stretching across most of two millennia. It marked the start of modern totalitarianism and the hyper-perilous times of our now-nuclear age, with its ever-expanding technocracy and global persecution of Christians, both under Communism and Near Eastern genocide. Today, globally, Christians are the most-persecuted major faith population.
America’s founding documents gave the underlying source of American pluralistic identity as related to Christian faith: “All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator…” God is referenced in the Declaration of Independence also as “Divine Providence,” “Nature’s God,” and the “Supreme Judge.” The Constitution is signed beneath the prominent date “in the year of our Lord.” Abraham Lincoln sealed this foundation in his Gettysburg Address in south central Pennsylvania, not too far south of our mission dedication, when in 1863 he wrote and spoke of “this nation under God” (commemorating a battle there, the largest in Western Hemisphere history, fought July 2-4). Lincoln, incidentally, found an ally in international diplomacy during the Civil War in Russia’s Tsar-Liberator Alexander II, who had emancipated the Russian serfs in 1861.
But the foundational sense of Christianity in American civil religion did not hold amid fragmenting Protestantism, secularization, and the capitalist forms of technocracy emerging in the twentieth century and accelerating today, notably the sexual revolution. Our town of Lewisburg is not having its famed Fourth of July downtown parade for the second year in a row, due to fallout from the Covid pandemic, paralleling the chill of civil unrest. Near the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up, Evanston, IL, had a larger famed Fourth parade also canceled again this year, unlike new Gay Pride and Juneteenth parades held instead. In some cities such alternate parades eclipse the Fourth.
Harvard historian Eric Nelson notes the role of what has been called the Hellenic-Christian synthesis, identified with Byzantium, in America’s cultural deep structure, through an important trilogy of books — The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding; The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought; and The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought. That synthesis of Classical and biblical foundations in Byzantine Orthodox civilization became in the Reformation era of the West a significant influence on America’s formation. Anthony Kaldellis’ study The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome, read in tandem with Nelson’s trilogy, highlights this historical parallel. The Russian Orthodox philosopher and exile S.L. Frank provides more depth spiritually to understand those Christian foundations of society, East and West, in relation to sobornost, the underlying spiritual unity or communion in society shown by Orthodox tradition. Frank’s books The Unknowable, The Meaning of Life, and The Spiritual Foundations of Society, provide a trilogy of Orthodox Christian insights on the nature of society as a Christian commonwealth, dimly present in America’s founding, and more fully recognizable and realizable only in Orthodox Christian tradition. So do publications of the Russian Orthodox Church at the opening of the twenty-first century, including the “Social Concept” (2000) and “Human Dignity” (2008) documents of the Bishops’ Council.
The Apostle Paul wrote, in the context for the title quote of this reflection, of how this true freedom in our Lord Jesus Christ goes beyond any constitutional legalism or atheistic utopian theory:
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious. Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away. Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (II Corinthians, Chapter 3)
America’s Future: Fulfilling Her Christian Past
In its spiritual dimensions of sobornost, this Fourth of July weekend connected the royal martyrs of Russia with St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, with the American founding’s historically Christian roots, and the dedication of our mission’s land in a corner of rural America today. The answer to the historic storms now buffeting America lies neither in a revolutionary erasing of her founding (as some want, based on neo-Marxist hostility to the faith), or in trying to return to a weak American civil religion based in secularizing Protestantism (as some nostalgists desire), or in a legalistic reading of her founding documents without Christ (another false utopianism). Consider in your mind’s eye crossing much of the beautiful green early-summer landscape of the Keystone State of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania this Fourth 2021, to worship at Orthodox Divine Liturgy commemorating All Saints of the Russian land, at the historic Russian Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in the coal valley at Mayfield with its otherworldly iconography and choir, while driving past rural American Protestant, Catholic, and Mennonite houses of worship in the Susquehanna Valley on the way. The day before, along the Susquehanna, local services in Lewisburg had remembered St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, with the Kursk Root icon processing with the Bishop along its hipster main street, followed by the prayers dedicating the Cross on our land in the country. Fireworks on the night of the Fourth on Penns Creek lit up the sky across woods near that field with its double-barred Orthodox Cross made from local hemlock-tree beams, marking the future site of an Orthodox Christian temple. How much the future of America lies in such unworthy hidden leavening today of her roots of faith in Orthodox Christianity returning to the West, in countless places and lives around our country, in self-emptying in our Lord and God Jesus Christ, rather than the self-assertion of materialism, and in the sorrowful joy of Christian thanksgiving, not in technocratic will to power, God willing. “For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
To give to the St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church building fund, please see stjohnthewonderworker.com
Pictured: The Confluence of the Susquehanna River’s Main (North) and West Branches, near our Church land in Winfield, PA, in central Pennsylvania. The Main Branch starts according to some hydrologists on the grounds of Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY.
A homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on Sunday, June 1, 7529 (June 13, 2021, on the civil calendar).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today we are in the in-between of our Lord Jesus Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost, a time of rest for the Church but also of completion.
Fittingly, today we commemorate on this Seventh Sunday of Pascha the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicaea in 320, convened by the Emperor Saint Constantine the Great.
It was at this Council that the core of the Nicene Creed that we recite at each Liturgy, and often in daily home prayer, was composed by the Holy Fathers and accepted by the Church with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Creed articulated what was already Church teaching and truth, from Scripture and tradition and inspiration, fulfilling the Old Testament in the New, and specifically refuting the Arian Heresy.
Arianism, and subsequent related heresies, held that Jesus Christ was not fully God and fully man, but was created. It was of a piece with heresies of Unitarianism and Gnosticism that in various new guises trouble our modern culture greatly still today.
Such heresies lead to a sense of mechanical materialism that encourages the atheism and nihilism and lonely self-assertion that trouble our era. Remember that the Apostle John the Theologian stated that the spirit of anti-Christ can be recognized in denial that Jesus Christ our God has come in the flesh.
In stating that Jesus Christ is of one essence with the Father, while also fully man, the First Council adopted the Greek term homousios.
The competing term at the Council had been homoiousios, meaning “similar essence” not “one essence.”
These words themselves are deceptively alike. There was only the Greek letter iota that made a difference between the two words. But that was all the difference. Our Lord said that “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Jot in that familiar English rendition translates iota.
Here significantly it is a matter of embracing the quietude or silence in rightly dividing the word of truth, not to add that letter, so to speak.
Every letter counts in God’s embodied Word, in His language of Pentecost and literal symbolism of scripture, and His meaningful Creation, as in also the detailed words and acts of the Divine Liturgy passed along to us by the Church.
And the Council decided on homousion because that is the truth of Jesus Christ, Who told His disciples that they would know the way He went because He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. He ascended bodily, fully God and fully man, to be at the right hand of the Father. And as the final version of the Creed tells us, He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose Kingdom shall have no end.
Tradition reports that St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea and hit the heretic Arius who did not accept the wording of the Creed that Jesus Christ is of one essence with the Father. St. Nicholas was disciplined for this but forgiven. This tradition about the fight at the Council connects us with another event this past week, in which fighting was futile because of not fully standing for truth, namely the anniversary this past Friday of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Despite the bravery of its overwhelmed defenders, the city’s defeat by the Muslim Turks is a reminder of how Christian societies fall by not keeping faithful to the law of God, which is summed up for us in our Symbol of Faith, the Creed. The leaders of Constantinople had wavered for some time in their efforts to seek help from the West, even departing from Orthodoxy in their fearful effort to find material help from the heterodox for their fight, forgetting the full law of God.
But God’s Povidence still sustained His Church.
When Constantinople fell, the niece of the last emperor would end up marrying Ivan III, Prince of Moscow. There, in what became Russia, monastic asceticism and hesychasm that came from Byzantium had been quietly nurtured, flowering in the life of St. Sergius of Radonezh among others.
Orthodox Russia herself would bloom forth as what would become called the Third Rome.
The mark of the success of Christian community however lies in faithfulness to Orthodox teaching and tradition, embodied in the unchanged Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, finalized at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantople. Material power and wealth never ensure safety or long-term privilege in this mortal world, for America today or any country, nor should they, as idols.
Fidelity to the teachings of the One Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, affords through our Lord’s grace the rock of our salvation in Christ, upon which we built with certainty and the gates of hell cannot prevail against His Church.
As we strive with God’s help to build our mission and temple, let us unworthily imitate the holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in adhering to the whole truth of Orthodoxy in this modern age, so increasingly hostile to traditional Christianity, rather than cut corners in our faith or alter an iota. For the Apostle John also adjures us to love in truth. The whole truth is the Person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, and His Body is the Church. We encounter the truth in His wholeness in the Eucharist and in our unworthy prayerful struggles, with His grace, to love in truth.
Then we remember that there is no safety in riches or armies or any other idol.
The rock upon which we must build our mission is the Truth of Him as of one essence with the Father, fully God and fully man, homousion, as the Fathers inspired by the Holy Spirit gave it to us in the Creed, with His help hopefully and in humility rightly dividing between every iota, even as our Lord knows the fall of every sparrow and each hair of our heads.
In the Epistle Reading today, the Apostle Paul shares words of Jesus Christ not in the Gospels but directly from living tradition of the Apostles: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And our Lord in the Gospel reading speaks of how he worked on earth so that we might have His joy fulfilled in ourselves.
One in Essence with the Father, the Son became fully God and fully man to save us, and in the process showed how we find ourselves in Him, and through Him in the Father, and with one another, by God’s grace and always worshipping His glory and mystery.
In the spiritual unity of sobornost or spiritual unity in truth, love in truth, we find ourselves through self-emptying in Christ, not in self-assertion.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us, Amen.
Picture: Ilya Repin, Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, Russian, 1871.
Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky of blessed memory was the founding first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. A reform-minded young hierarch in Russia, he became a foe of nihilistic revolutionary forces, and then helped lead the formation of the Synod in exile during the departure of the White Army from Crimea to Constantinople, eventually finding a base for ROCOR in Serbia during the interwar years. One account of his life even suggests that he as a young man could have been a partial inspiration for Alexei Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s fiction, as the young real-life Alexei (his birth name) had met the great Orthodox novelist. In any case, Metropolitan Anthony’s writing on redemption provoked controversy and sometimes condemnation, because of his emphasis on Jesus Christ’s struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was attacked as holding an allegedly heretical view under-emphasizing the Cross. St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, a younger contemporary and admirer of Metropolitan Anthony who had been mentored by him, wrote that Vladyka Anthony’s writings on this topic should be viewed as coming from a deeply loving pastoral heart even if seen as unclear, and not made the focus of undeserved scandal. The article linked below, by the author “N.A.” writing in a European ROCOR publication in 1996, contextualizes Metropolitan Anthony’s writing on the topic in the view that nature involves activity, related to the two natures and two wills and energies of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man, as key to His redemption of us as human beings. (This article was posted recently to the online group Historical Studies of the Russian Church Abroad; thanks to the site and the poster for sharing it.)
Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Pascha, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg PA, on May 24, 7529 (June 6, 2021 civil calendar)
Christ is Risen!
Dear brothers and sisters, today we commemorate the blind man, the man born blind, who is also each of us. This Pascha season continues to point to our new birth in our Lord Jesus Christ, through baptism and chrismation renewed in the Eucharist and in the uncreated grace of the Holy Spirit, symbolized in our seven-branched candlestick or menorah (representing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit) on the altar here at our humble yet venerable mission. Our mission is humble, it is small, it is a missionary frontier of the worldwide Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Yet it is also venerable for that same reason, as part of our Lord’s Church, His Body, His Bride, from apostolic times to the ancient Patriarchates and from them to what became the Patriarchate of Moscow and to us.
This is the Sixth Sunday of Pascha, Six symbolizing the days of Creation of the world, and the making of man. St. Irenaeus, an early Church Father who was a spiritual grandson of St. John the Theologian, the Evangelist who tells us the account of the blind man, noted that the mixture of clay and saliva in the Gospel story forms a type of creation of humanity from the earth. Thus Jesus Christ reveals his divinity in this Sixth Sign in the Gospel of John, commemorated on this Sixth Sunday of Pascha, using the same materials that He used to make man on the Sixth Day, the clay and the spittle symbolizing the two natures of Christ Who is also a Person of the Holy Trinity, His spittle reminding us of the divine and also our baptism and chrismation in Him as His creatures.
Yet the healing of blindness from birth also typifies the coming of the uncreated light fully through the Incarnation, fulfilling the promise of theosis or oneness with God’s energies offered to man in Christ. The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness understandeth it not, as St. John’s Gospel tells us earlier, fulfilling the Genesis account of creation. In the chiasmus or mirroring of biblical poetry, the sixth day of Creation, in which man is made according to the image and likeness of God, mirrors the second day, in which the waters are separated above and below, mirroring one another, a type of the flowing grace of the Holy Spirit moving upon the waters.
The two great lights at the center of the chiasmic or mirroring structure of the seven days, the sun and the moon, likewise typify according to some commentators Christ and His Church, the moon as the Church reflecting the light of the Sun. So too the blind man’s healing. as again the Sixth Sign in the Gospel of St. John the Theologian, and commemorated on theSsixth Sunday of Pascha, points us ahead toward the outflowing of the Holy Spirit in the Seventh Sunday of the First Ecumenical Council, and to the formation of the New Testament Church at Pentecost, just beyond the Seventh Sunday and on the horizon.
This week we will find ourselves in an in-between time, with the leave-taking of Pascha on Wednesday, and then the Ascension on Thursday, and then the Seventh and last Sunday of Pascha, before Pentecost, next Sunday. Thus so we are in that in-between time in which we must pray and work with God’s grace for our salvation here on earth. Not because of the sins of his parents was the man born blind, we are told, but for the glory of God, and so it is with us here and now. The night will come, death and the age to come, when we can not find the embodied freedom to seek salvation in grace. We must pray and work here and now.
One thing we must note today from the blind man’s experience: When he is healed and sees the light, he is cast out from society. He becomes like a pariah, an outcast, as it were a spiritual guerrilla fighter. The Jewish leaders of the day cast him out from their community, from any hope of social acceptance and success. So were those leaders blind in their self-righteousness and lack of faith. The blind man who now sees becomes a witness, one translation for the Greek word martyr, and joins the larger commonwealth of God, the Church.
Are we willing to give up our own dreams of material comfort and contentment likewise to be such a witness? To really see the light of God, would we give up our social acceptance, our man-pleasing conformity, our desires for material success, and fully begin a new dimension of living while still hear on earth? When I was young, I was a member for a while of an American religious cult that emphasized success and claimed to be Christian but was gnostic in teachings and apart from the one Holy and Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church. It counted a number of Hollywood stars and political and successful business figures among its adherents. It presented itself as all-American. But it was a dying and declining cult, and lacked the fulness of truth and freedom as service to truth in the Person of Jesus Christ, which we find in the light of Orthodoxy, with its apostolic succession.
The Orthodox Church calls us to ascetic struggle, as well as love in truth of our neighbors and one another. I have, since unworthily taking a stand for the Orthodox faith, found myself having lost friends, but also have gained truer ones, glory to God. And our truest friend, Who will never leave us, is Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us pray that we may always walk with Him and be faithful to Him, as we work to evangelize the central Susquehanna Valley, and build our temple, God willing, in the light of Christ, in a fresh new and real dimension of living in God’s creation with His grace upon our struggles. This light He offers us every day and every moment, and it is the light of His Resurrection embracing and revivifying the earth and each of us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg PA on the Fifth Sunday of Pascha, the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, May 17, 7529 (May 30, 2021 on the civil calendar).
Christ is Risen,
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today we worship together in our Lord’s Church on the fourth Sunday of Pascha, just past the Mid-Pentecost feast, heading toward the Ascension and the Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the Church and fully established the Church of the New Testament for all time. This is a very special time in our Church calendar.
When we ask when our Church was established, we can rightly say Pentecost, for our mission as well as for all of Orthodox Christendom.
The account of the saint whom we commemorate today, St. Photini or Svetlana, the Samaritan Woman, relates blessedly to all this.
When the Samaritan Woman was baptized by the Apostles according to tradition she was given the name Photini, which means “Enlightened One,” as does Svetlana, similar to Lucia in the Latin West.
For she is told by our Lord Jesus Christ that He gives her living water, and so He does for all of us in His Church, through baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by our candlestand on the altar’s seven branches. That living water given by Jesus Christ is also associated with the Holy Spirit, which from the time of Creation in Genesis 1 moved upon the waters.
So our baptism is renewed each time we have Communion and we drink of the living water of our Lord’s blood and eat of the living bread that is His body, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These involve the uncreated energies of God, which come from the undivided Trinity, although in particular the Church Fathers tell us they flow through the Holy Spirit, as at Pentecost with the tongues of fire that also opened the tongues of language for evangelizing the world, undoing the sin of Babel.
It is the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah that makes clear the Seven Gifts of the Spirit as articulated by the Fathers of the Church, namely wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
They were symbolized too by the ancient seven-branched menorah in the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament temple.
The experience of the Samaritan Woman recalls this fulfillment of the Old Testament Church in the New Testament Church that is the new Israel. It happened at Jacob’s Well, a place associated with the plot of land where Jacob set his tent and then purchased the land about two millennia ago, as described in Genesis 33. It is a deep well hewn of solid rock that currently is within the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Jacob’s Well on the West Bank. There, the living water of the New Testament fulfilled the ancient well of Jacob, the patriarch of Israel, father of the patriarchs of the twelve tribes, which were fulfilled in the work of the twelve apostles.
The distinction and continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament Church also is seen in the witness of the modern saint from that place, St. Philoumenos, the head of the monastery of Jacobs Well. He was martyred in 1979 at the same place where St. Photini met our Lord Jesus Christ, by a fanatically religious and mentally ill Jew, who threw a grenade into the monastery and then hacked the saint with an axe, killing him. Today the martyr Philoumenos intercedes in heaven for us all in the Israel of the New Testament, which reaches out to all the nations, as is attested by the Seventy Apostles of the early Church who were established by our Lord to go out to all seventy of the nations, the number indicated for all the nations of the world in Genesis.
Even the Church’s commemoration of St. Photini-Svetlana on the fourth Sunday of Pascha has significance, because five is symbolically related to the five books of the law, and perhaps going beyond the regular world of cosmology to a deeper sense of God’s revealed law. Four is significant symbolically in the Church as related to the reaching out to the Creation. Thus we have the four Evangelists, the Four Gospels, the four categories of books in the Old Testament (the law, historical, prophetic, and wisdom) but also the four directions, the four seasons, and the four winds. Three is a number symbolically identified in the Church theologically with the Trinity, while four has cosmological connections with our mission’s duty to evangelize. Five goes beyond it to remind us of the Pentateuch fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ.
So on this fifth Sunday of Pascha we also commemorate a woman who was evangelized indeed from a very worldly situation, and who became an evangelist herself to the world, known as equal to the apostles, coming to reflect Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of God’s law, indeed His embodiment of the Logos as Principle in His incarnation.
For St. Photini was a Samaritan woman, she was a member of a group of people who had split off from the Temple worship in Jerusalem, a remnant of the lost kingdom of Israel whose worship and traditions had been mixed up through the long captivity of Israel with other nations, giving rise to the legends of the lost tribes of Israel.
Samaritans also were viewed as a despised minority often by Jewish leaders of the day, and had lost the pure teachings and practice of the Old Testament Church.
And she had had multiple husbands and her current one was not really her husband, as our Lord pointed out, for he knew her situation as God, just a He knows ours.
She was honest with him in saying she had no husband and He told her she had spoken well. In this he also reminded us of the nature of Christian marriage as a commitment to our Lord and God as well as an ascetic partnership with a fellow Christian. That marriage is between a man and woman symbolizes the difference of God and Man in what the Bible also describes as the marriage of God and His Church, as well as their complementarity in Christ, and in the oneness of theosis of man with God through His uncreated energies but not essence. This is love in truth, which Jesus Christ offered divinely in the Spirit to the woman at the well.
In response to the Samaritan woman’s honesty about her fleshly immoral situation, Jesus Christ gently revealed Himself to her as the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament of the Jews. Yet He also said to her as a Samaritan that her schismatic culture’s beliefs in its own separate place to worship God was not true, that we know what we worship because salvation is of the Jews, because the Messiah is come from the Jews, fulfilling the Old Testament promises in the Word of God in both senses–the Word of God the Logos, and the word of God in Scripture, which flows from Him through the Holy Spirit as living water.
Because those promises are fulfilled, he adds, “…the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Thus here we in this little mission in northern Appalachia too worship Him in Spirit and truth. Like the Samaritan woman we come from heterodox and lost remnants, sinners, to a personal sense of fulfilling the Law of God in Christ. Here in the Israel of the New Testament Church we reconnect through our baptism with the living waters of Jesus Christ, and that baptism is renewed continually through the Eucharist.
Just as St. Photini told others, and many were converted to believe in Jesus Christ because her testimony led them to Him, so we must do likewise.
For “then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed [a]the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
St. Photini is sometimes described as the first to proclaim Christ in evangelism at large. This is likely also why the Church commemorates us on this Fourth Sunday of Pascha.
Known as the Equal to the Apostles, she converted her five sisters and two sons, who all became evangelists and martyrs for Christ. She and her family left Samaria to Carthage to proclaim the Gospel there, after the martyrdoms of the Apostles Paul and Peter. During the persecutions of Emperor Nero, they were all martyred in north Africa, a family of saints and evangelist: Saints Anatole, Photo, Photis, Paraskeve, Kyriake, Photinos, and Joses, with her. Let us likewise be so dedicated to witnessing to the Gospel as the Law of God fulfilled, and spreading it to our families and neighbors today at the confluence of the Susquehanna River, whose waters God willing we will bless at Theophany this coming year.
Recently I was blessed to talk with a group of seminarians at Jordanville (via Zoom) in Professor Deacon Andrei Psarev’s history seminar at Holy Trinity Seminary.
In that conversation (linked elsewhere here) I mentioned what I called “overlaps” between aspects of American and Russian cultural paradigms, along with obvious differences. I mentioned these in conversation about how Americans can be touched by Orthodox Christian evangelism and in particular how Americans like myself end up joining the Russian Church (albeit that I am also in a melded Russian-American family).
In that discussion I referred to aspects of American cultural views that are not only often hyper-self-assertive (the kind of Western “rational egoism” that Dostoevsky criticized in his great novels), but that also contrariwise can evoke a Jacobite imaginative community, awaiting “the return of the king” and yearning for a hidden lost faith and country. This echoes through American life from a strange meld of Anglo-Irish-Scottish Appalachian culture, out of sync with mainstream Enlightenment-based norms in the West today. I think that cultural orientation overlaps partly with the monarchist exile history of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, of which I am a member. I mentioned to the class that this is perhaps a weird theory of my own. But I will try to describe it here.
The return of the King
The term Jacobitism links the biblical style of the name of King James of Scotland and England–enduring in the King James or Authorized translation of the Bible–through his son the deposed King James II, to the elder James’ great-grandson Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Legends of the latter’s exile, with the loss of old-style kingship and old faith, and hopes for their return. shaped the Christian monarchist undertones in an American Jacobitism of the imagination. The latter lingers in cultural resistance to establishments of gnostic virtual realities, while preserving hopes for a hidden traditional Christian order to be renewed. J.R.R. Tolkien’s English fantasy mythology offers a reminder of the continuing power of the idea of the return of a lost king and lost faith, evoked in the title of his The Return of the King. Tolkien, according to Guy Davenport, drew on Appalachian American culture for his Shire of Hobbits. The epidemic of loneliness and meaninglessness felt among people in the West today (evidenced in the continued popularity of Tolkien’s classic fantasy, about which I have written here) includes a yearning for hidden and lost meanings that the Orthodox Church fills.
Perhaps the anthem for Jacobitism is the Skye Boat Song, about the disappearance of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and hopes for his return.
Jacobitism strictly speaking involved Scottish, Irish, and English sympathies for restoration of the House of Stuart, which was vanquished in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, in which James II of England (Prince Charlie’s grandfather), was deposed. The Glorious Revolution fully established England’s modern parliamentary democracy, its Whiggish orientation toward secular progress that Dostoevsky criticized in his depictions of London’s Crystal Palace in the Victorian age, and accelerated secularization of English religious culture, seen in Britain’s current “post-Christian” state with its nearly vanished Anglicanism. Jacobitism remained an ongoing tendency toward resistance against modernity, reflected in the literary works of Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century, in the views of some British Romantics, most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and in the Arts and Crafts movement and efforts to revive folk arts and “High Church” Protestant and Catholic movements.
In America, echoes of this were represented in ongoing and renewed attachment to the King James Bible, even among Scots-Irish believers in America, often not “high church” or liturgical Protestants, but populist in orientation. Yet the seal of the Stuart Monarch authorizing the translation, together with its old-school beauty of language, helped shape a certain aura of Christian kingship around their Bible as well, to fit paradoxically their own restive rebelliousness.
The idea of the monarch having an affinity for the common people, as opposed to grandees oppressing them, helped inform the movement toward the American Revolution, some Federalist thinking, and paradoxically aspects of Jacksonian democracy. So a leading American myth-maker, James Fenimore Cooper, flipped effortlessly from a Federalist background to being a Jacksonian Democrat, and the center of his myth-making, Cooperstown, NY, lies coincidentally near to the Russian Church center of Jordanville, NY, today. Such American tendencies show surprising parallels to the slogan “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” under Tsar Nicholas I in Russia. In America they became associated with a nation “under God” as in the Gettysburg Address, at odds with the more exclusively Enlightenment secular or neo-pagan view, which would seek to disestablish and erase American Christian civil religion over time.
A “Christ-haunted” America
Famously, more U.S. Presidents were of Scots-Irish background than any other, mixed with Anglo backgrounds. That meld of folk cultures was a significant influence in Appalachia as it crosses southern and middle and northern states, including where I now live in central Pennsylvania. Those of Ulster background did not necessarily become American Jacobites, although Protestant Scots-Irish culture lingering in Northern Ireland today remains arguably both more religious and more supportive of monarchy than any other constituency in the fragmenting United Kingdom. Imaginative American Jacobitism, the yearning for a lost king of an old community faith at odds with modern norms, linking populism to absent monarchism in a framework of frontier Christian faith, found broad cultural resonance with those of English, Irish, and other backgrounds. The Stuarts were Catholics, but Scottish Episcopalians in Aberdeenshire, Convenanters in the southwest of Scotland near where you cross to Ulster, as well as “High-Church” English and Anglo-Irish folks, also shared Jacobite tendencies with Highlander Catholics. Scottish Catholics in North Carolina and Scots Covenanters in South Carolina brought their distinct and paradoxically Jacobite (not Jacobine) revolutionary tendencies with them to America, for example. (Thanks to Anglican Fr Peter Anthony Geromel for his help on Protestant historical points here.)
In America, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, a foundational literary myth for America, illustrates these emphases in a Tory subplot to its key volume The Pioneers. Cooper’s The American Democrat and other writings illustrated his unhappiness with Whiggish business plutocracy in his day and what he saw as ensuing moral corruption of America. Jacobitism of the imagination in American culture went beyond the institutionalized “Anglo-Saxon” or WASP establishment culture, which remains an object of both nostalgia and opprobrium, and often subverted it.
Arguably Jacobite-style themes played a role in literary themes of what the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connnor famously called the “Christ-haunted” South. These include Southern Gothic writings like hers, and what has been called “implied nobility” in the tone of Shelby Foote’s epic history The Civil War, backgrounded by critiques of technocracy in Depression-era Southern Agrarianist writings and their modernist-malcontents like the work of Walker Percy, with all their virtues and vices, as well as Southern Black spirituals and spirituality that emerged from slavery, and American gospel-folk and hillbilly music. It echoes on in pop culture in diverse roots of American Country music in English, Irish, Scottish, African folk-music traditions. Kris Kristofferson, for example, after a night out clubbing in Nashville, stumbled unbelieving into a Sunday-morning Protestant worship service. He came out after answering the altar call weeping, to his surprise, and wrote “Why Me Lord.” It became his top-selling single and signature finale. The king is no more, but the Lord is the King Who will return, Jesus Christ.
A Jacobite Constitution
Eric Nelson of Harvard has argued that a “Neo-Stuart” view of royalist privilege informed the U.S. Constitution and the shaping of the Presidency, in his book The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding. “Royalist patriots” had argued for George III to revive monarchical powers in the “spirit of ’75” in defense of the people against moneyed English interests, and carried those views over to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 where the Constitution was drawn up. Even recent voting patterns of the Appalachian region, from the South up through Pennsylvania, still show — in support for President Trump as a kind of mythic figure whose re-election legendarily was stolen and will return — for good or bad, these tendencies, thumbing a nose at “coastal elites” in favor of an unlikely surrogate “king” figure.
More deeply, as historian Nelson has noted, the U.S. Constitution, as it emerged from the Declaration of Independence and was extended by the Bill of Rights and Gettysburg Address, came to involve a remarkably monarchical sense of the central executive, unique among developed constitutional democracies, yet also linked to mysterious layers of federalism and checks-and-balances including the filibuster, Supreme Court, composition of the Senate, First and Second Amendments, and ideas of a civil religion originally based in Christian culture. All of these, I argue in another project, together proximate weirdly aspects of Orthodox Christian culture of conciliarity, sobornost, symphonia, and pre-revolutionary Russian and Byzantine ideas of monarchy, with a commonality of old Christian culture at the base from the Reformation era, however different in forms.
Confusing Jacobinism for Jacobitism
Today the term Jacobitism is easily confused with its near-homophonic Jacobinism, and obscured by it. Jacobinism means radical revolutionary tendencies, originally as named from the French Revolution. Jacobinism in Russia, in the form of Leninist Bolshevism, killed the king and sought to kill the Church. In America, twenty-first-century Jacobinists seek to kill the surrogate working monarchy, the old Constitution, while also looking to erase traditional Christian faith, primarily by making it invisible in the schooling, cyberspace, and careers where many young people today grow up. The revolution will be televised because it is in line with the technocracy we’ve got.
But still imaginative Jacobite yearning for lost faith and king finds resonance in a country with deep religious roots amid rising domination of educational, media, governmental, and corporate realms by Jacobinism increasingly intolerant of imaginative cultural community, Appalachian deplorables, and traditional Christianity. A new poll shows that 43% of millennial Americans don’t know or care or believe in God, a percentage that undoubtedly is higher for up-and-coming Generation Z. Russia today (unbelievably for Americans with Cold War memories) is the pre-eminent major Christian country in the world. Yet even so, “Christ-haunted” America lingers, awaiting a stronger faith than Protestantism or Catholicism can provide.
Russian Orthodoxy in America Today
During the twentieth century and beyond, the Russian Church in exile kept in its culture a spirit of monarchism, anti-Jacobinism, and what the exile Russian Orthodox philosopher S.L. Frank called “strange love” for a homeland that no longer exists. That is acutely the condition of modern human beings, indeed chronically of human nature since the Fall more generally. Hence the continued relevance of this tradition, not in terms of politics, but in terms of cultural contexts in which many Americans convert to Russian Orthodoxy in the twenty-first century, amid efforts to convert America to an Orthodox Christian country over time. Those within the Orthodox Church find fulfillment in desire for the return of the Emperor of Emperors, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. This fully Apostolic Christian faith is not lost, if somewhat hidden to worldly thought at large, in places as humble as our small Russian Orthodox mission in northern Appalachia today, because it is in the heart.
The typology of old Anglo-Scottish-Irish Jacobitism of the imagination in America, like that of Tolkien’s kingship, points to the true faith, in contradistinction to modern Jacobinism that would erase it, as long as it is realized as not endpoint but typology. Recognizing this may help with Orthodox evangelism in Appalachian and “heartland” America, in reaching those with such native human longings for God in their hearts of whatever culture or age, in our era of digital wasteland. But that fulfillment remains in the heart, or more properly in the nous or “eye of the soul” coming into the heart, through God’s grace, in the Orthodox Church returning to the West after an exile of centuries that was never complete. This the real “Return of the King.”
A new seven-branched candle stick from Russia on our mission altar (pictured immediately below) reminds us of the old Temple menorah, taken by the Romans during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, memorialized on the Arch of Titus in Rome (second photo below), and re-taken by the Saint-Emperor Justinian from the Vandals who had looted it, to safeguard reverently at Constantinople. But it is the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that it symbolizes, among other meanings, that makes it significant, not the imperial historical associations.