Going “home”

In high summer recently I had a chance to travel back to my home neighborhood in Chicago with my sons, where my mother-in-law Galina still lives, and then on with them to my father’s family’s old ancestral digs in northeastern Iowa, a place called Siewers Spring.

I was grateful for a warm and unexpected welcome by Christine Oliver and family at the Hjelle Farm by Siewers Spring, and on a busy eve of her wedding no less. Here is a photo of my sons Kevin Seraphim and Nicholas and I with the “brick house” (formerly home of the first Siewerses in our branch of the family to come to the US in the 19th century) in the background across the spring, which is also a state park and state fish hatchery.

We took the trip at my son Nick’s request, he wanted to travel with his brother before starting college at the small Christian liberal arts college where he now attends. The trip morphed into a visit to his grandmother and then Siewers Spring and so the theme of it in many ways became family roots and backgrounds, which our sons didn’t know well growing up in an academic Russian-American family remote from relatives in northern Appalachia. (My wife, Matushka Olga, due to some work logistics and an ill family pet, wasn’t able to travel with us this time.)

Eric Sevareid, the late CBS news commentator, wrote elegiacally of the rolling landscape of northeastern Iowa, and its attraction to Scandinavian immigrants, having grown up himself nearby in the Dakotas. For my sons, the trip was an initiation of sorts also into my native Midwest, as we drove through northern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin on the way to Decorah, at times trying to outrun tornado warnings and severe thunder storms in what seemed to them like scenes from the reality TV tornado-hunting series, but which brought back childhood memories for me of the flatlands. Our experiences included a stop in a country bar-burger place, just across the border in Minnesota by the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which seemed to delight Nick especially in what he considered to be a taste of heartland American life.

When my ancestors arrived in northeast Iowa, it was to join the Norwegian immigrant community clustered around Luther College. The Lutheran founders’ memorial there dedicated to the pioneering faith of the College’s origins, includes the name of Lyder Siewers, a professor whose obituary describes his love of nature and children, and who went on to edit the magazine of the national Norwegian newspaper based in Decorah.

As we arrived at Siewers Spring without warning, my sons urged me not to embarrass them by making a scene. But seeing some people gathered by a tent outside the old brick house, I nonetheless walked across the bridge and introduced myself to Christine Oliver, who immediately recognized me indirectly through knowledge of my father in Chicago, welcomed us, and kindly took us on a tour. I knew I was “home” in a sense, because she immediately pronounced our last name correctly in the old style I use (“See-vers”). However, even that name is a mark of displacement in a sense, for it is a Baltic German name best known in Estonia, and in the U.S. apparently among old Moravian families originating from Bethlehem, PA, and Winston-Salem, NC, not our immediate family branch. The Siewerses in our branch hailed from Fredrikstad and Bergen in Norway, merchant towns where according to family lore they once had a trading fleet that was seized by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Material family fortunes never recovered, but Lyder had married Christine Brandt, scion of a famous Norwegian family also entwined with the Hjelle family, which now owns the farm adjacent to Siewers Spring State Park, and to which Christine Oliver belongs. Our ancestors also had connections with the Collett family in Norway, whose members hospitably took me in on a post-college graduation trip to Norway long ago. In Iowa, the Siewerses intermarried with Irish Catholic immigrant families. Hence my father was a couple generations removed from his Lutheran forebears in growing up in the now-vanished tribe of West Side Irish in Chicago. Then he married a woman of Yankee-Swedish background who grew up a Christian Scientist on an old farmstead in Chicago. But that’s another story.

On the tour of the brick house by Siewers Spring, I saw an old piano, gifted there by my father during restoration of the house. I remembered it well from our basement on Estes Avenue in West Rogers Park, Chicago, where I grew up. Earlier, driving by that urban house, I recalled most fondly memories of our backyard, seeming so small now, but such a vast semi-tamed wilderness in my early childhood memories. Nearby was the bustling and hustling hyper-urban part of multiracial and multicultural and economically diverse Rogers Park, where my mother-in-law lives near Lake Michigan in an apartment building with many elderly Russian Jewish neighbors. The nearby leafy home of my urban childhood memories was a house of tragedy, too, where my sister died too young, and full of sadness mixed with wonder, as is all of human life itself.

I must have been a strange, if distantly familiar to a few, figure at both Siewers Spring and strolling my old city neighborhood on our trip, in Russian Orthodox Christian clergy garb including riassa and skufia, stealing back for a visit “home” to help my sons find some context for their history. A couple people stopped me on the street in my old Chicago neighborhood to ask me who I was because of my garb. But the experience of displaced home connections, present yet lost, links to my life today as father of Russian-American young men, husband of an immigrant, missionary Deacon in a worldwide faith that in deep Christian tradition is familiar yet strange to Americans despite its long apostolic lineage, and a literary professor who focuses on early English literature, which is ever-more of a strange country to young Anglophone people and even to my own academic colleagues. The Russian Christian existentialist philosopher S.L. Frank, an exile first from Communist Russia and then from Nazi Germany, wrote in his book The Meaning of Life of “strange love,” love for a home place that no longer exists. This echoes the human condition, our yearning for a lost Paradise, and our ability through Jesus Christ to find it again, more and deeper.

Recently at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, I was walking through farmland near the golden domes of the Church there, with Reader Nicholas Chapman, erudite director of Holy Trinity Publications, while he spoke to me of how some people seek a romanticized view of a home region, using as an example nostalgists for the old American South, neglecting the evils of slavery in seeking an imaginary refuge from modern materialism. For me, Siewers Spring and the backyard of my old house in West Rogers Park in Chicago have functioned as imaginary refuges of memory. But over and around and beneath and before and beyond, as in St. Patrick’s ancient Irish lorica prayer speaking of Jesus Christ, lie memories of joyful sorrow from within the Church home where I live today with our Lord, the “memory eternal” we seek from God for us. In Him we believe in the resurrection of the dead and hope for a return to Paradise through His grace, the particular man Who is the Creator God. That “strange love” of true home and family makes every moment of life here and now deeper: An opportunity to struggle with His grace for virtue touched by immortality, in the freedom of voluntary choice to serve the Truth–the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Who is a Person. His Mother intercedes for us with Him, Who shows us the Father, and through Whom the Spirit comes upon us. In the mystery of His love, in the Body of His Church, we find home and family in the deeper context of His never-ending font of love like the headwaters of the four rivers of Paradise, in what the Russians call the sobornost of hidden unity–fulfilling the experience of home by emptying ourselves in love.

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Richard Henry Dana Sr., the “Terrible Non-Human” that is Human, and Christian Tradition

From a five-minute “snap talk” delivered as part of the Non/Humanity program at Bucknell University on Aug. 20, 7529 (civil calendar, Sept. 2, 2021).

Richard Henry Dana Sr.’s early American Gothic novella, Paul Felton, the title character encounters a wilderness whose woods enclose demonic evil. The title character’s ultra-romantic individualistic approach to life has disastrous results, by engaging the demonic presence of an old murder in the woods. Dana’s explication of the woods as a place of horror is of a piece with his critique of the trajectory of New England culture from Puritanism to liberal Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. The latter, finding an apotheosis of sorts in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “transparent eyeball” of absorbing Nature, related to his promotion of “Self-Reliance” apart from traditional faith. Such ideas offered fertile ground for both American social-justice utopianism on the one hand, and New Thought and the Prosperity Gospel on the other — with a shared tendency to try to remake the nonhuman and erase the terrible reality of mortality in the image of individual will. Dana’s depiction of the non-human world of the woods could easily be read into that narrative, labeled typical of developing American attitudes toward the wilderness, as an evil awaiting not only purification but commodification– the reduction of the nonhuman to an object used to build up and shape our reality according to our will, such as turning Felton’s woods into a parking lot.

But such a reading of Dana’s book would neglect important older themes that he reworks into his early American horror tale, and themes important to American cultural history itself — namely awareness of terrible and awful aspects of the non-human, and implications for human nature. It would neglect in his work the traditional Christian concern with the existential choices moment-by-moment of this life, as the basis for the after-life, that continue to inform an important dimension of American culture.

The non-human in Dana’s novella is terrible as a source of terror and confusion of human certainties, awful not only for its sense of brooding evil, but evocative of a fullness of awe in the face of the ultimately nonhuman experience of death, which is nonetheless all too human. In this, Dana draws on a core of Christian and biblical themes going back two millennia and more, on a personal path that would lead him–not conventionally for Yankee literati of his era as they embraced secular materialism with religious fervor–to the traditionalist faith of the high Episcopal Church. His horror at the encounter with death as the ultimately nonhuman that is also human is something secular humanism came to evade, a shared but denied experience of the “nonhuman” limitations of human life. A vivid memory of such horror came to me by surprise, as a young person, when told by a neighbor of how a beloved relative whom I admired for his strong personality was reduced to pounding his hands on the concrete floor of the morgue in despair when identifying the body of his daughter.

As the historian Michael Connelly noted in discussing the critique of American Romanticism by Dana, whom he describes as an “American Tory,” the early American author saw the paradox of how “[t]he Romantic could create works of beauty, imagination, and grandeur. Led by subjective individualism, he also held the potential for psychosis, madness, and nihilism.” Literary scholar Doreen Hunter noted that Dana “could not accept a worldview that placed fatally flawed humankind at the center of the meaning-making process. He discerned few literary possibilities in the workings of the unconscious mind. The hidden processes of the mind, which for many romanticists was a rich source of symbolism, now seemed to Dana haunted by the demons of untamed passion.”

The terrible nonhuman as a theme in ancient Christian tradition with which Dana engaged goes back into Late Antiquity and beyond in biblical accounts. In the fourth-century Vita of St. Antony the Great, the great prototype of Christian hagiography, the author St. Athanasius the Great records that Antony went out into the desert, into a wilderness infested by demons. Yet ultimately in that desert, unlike the romantic Paul Felton in Dana’s New England woods, he came to fall in love with a desert place where he came to live and engage in asceticism and meditative prayer, combined with survival gardening and a fruitful defensive interaction with animals eating his garden. The non-human landscape permeated with the demonic, with spiritual beings beyond human ken, sometimes appearing in nonhuman animal form, involved a spiritual landscape in which Antony’s ascetic contemplation thrived, even when he lived in a tomb in the desert or in an abandoned fort there. Multitudes followed him to the desert to escape in faith the cruelties of the Roman Empire. But it remained a potentially dangerous physical and spiritual place. Like Edmund Burke’s idea of the experience of the sublime as going beyond the merely beautiful to experience a deeper truth in nature, going to live in the nonhuman desert as a contemplative ascetic involved an experience like being perched on an abyss, an encounter also with one’s own “nonhumanity” through faith. To use another analogy, just as looking to the horizon from a boat can calm the embodied terror of seasickness, so the contemplative grounding of prayer and asceticism could be called a kind of looking to a larger context of the “nonhuman” greater than ourselves, which for the Christian is the mystery of the God-man Jesus Christ.

The Christian Gospel influenced writers such as Athanasius and Dana to meditate on how finding one’s self requires losing one’s self in the nonhuman and finding the nonhuman to be human as well in the process. Finding ourself is a central cultural value of today’s secular education. But as indicated also by Dostoevsky’s horror-tinged writing, with Christian existentialist themes like Dana’s, self-emptying into the terrible non-human, finding the non-human in the human face of Christ the God-man, offers another way than the self-assertion emphasized in many modern ideologies. As the poet Rilke put it, “every angel is terrible.”

For more by and about Richard Henry David Sr., see Poems and Prose Writings by Richard H. Dana, 1833, reprinted in Kessinger’s Legacy Reprints. Also Doreen Hunter, Richard Henry Dana, Sr., Twayne Publishers, 1987. And Michael H. Connolly, “The Toryism of Richard Henry Dana, Sr.,” in The Imaginative Conservative (2020), https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2020/09/toryism-richard-henry-dana-sr-michael-j-connolly.html

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The Hope of Faith and the Trap of Gnosticism: St. Irenaeus of Lyons Today

Homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, on Sunday, Aug. 23, 7529 [Sept. 6, 2021, on the civil calendar].

Today is the Apodosis or Leave-taking of the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God which is sometimes called the Summer Pascha, as we move toward the end of the Church Year on Aug. 31 (Sept. 13 on the civil calendar). At this leave-taking of summer Pascha, on the eighth or resurrectional day after the feast, we commemorate also on the Church calendar each year the holy and glorious right-victorious Hieromartyr Irenaeus, who was born about a hundred years after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, and lived in what is now France. He was a great early teacher of Orthodoxy to the West.

Significantly for the correlation of his legacy with the Dormition season, he is the first Christian writer whose work survives to highlight the tradition that the Virgin Mary is the New Eve, just as Jesus Christ is the New Adam. Related to that, for the Theotokos Is the greatest of the saints and the hub as it wee of the Apostolic era, St Irenaeus emphasized that early the importance of apostolic succession,  how the living tradition of the Church is sustained by God’s providence across generations through the spiritual power given to her at Pentecost, in which her members join through communion.

He emphasized apostolic succession in the face of a great heresy or wandering away from Christian truth that had already started in his time, known as Gnosticism, which is a major heresy returned to us in new forms today in America. His major surviving work, entitled On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-called Gnosis, today known usually by shorthand as Against Heresies, is counted among the writings of the apostolic fathers, as Irenaeus was a living personal link in that early tradition of the Church. He was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna who himself was a disciple of the Apostle John the Theologian.

His writing against gnosis or Gnosticism, which means a private knowing of truth, is significant because he offers an early historical testimony to the life of Jesus Christ from only two generations away tracing back to someone who knew our Lord, and combines this with an historical witness to the pernicious and persisting heresies of Gnosticism  His descriptions of Gnosticism were considered too fantastic and terrible, like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel, until they were confirmed by the discovery of gnostic writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1945 and after.Folklorists claim that oral traditions are reliable about history for at least a couple generations, to the time of the grandparents and living memory, and Irenaeus was a spiritual grandson of the beloved disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, testifying to the truth of the Gospels written directly by those who knew the Lord.

St. Irenaeus is remembered as the second bishop of Lyons, succeeding Pothinus, who was martyred during persecution of Christians under Marcus Aurelius when St. Irenaeus was visiting Rome. Lyons in France at that time was a major center of the Western Empire and a kind of gateway to the old Celtic and Germanic regions of the West. Known as Lugdumum, the Roman capital of Gaul, it may have had up to 200,000 residents in the time of St Irenaeus. Some scholars say its name is based in that of a Celtic pagan god associated with the sun although it also has been interpreted as “shining hill.”

Irenaeus is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp‘s hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now Izmir, Turkey. He was brought up in a Christian family so personally connected to orthodoxy. He is remembered as a martyr and buried under the church in Lyons, although his relics there were destroyed in 1562 by the Calvinist Huegenots during the religious wars that wracked France in the Reformation, in which Protestant culture came to hasten the revival of Gnosticism in the West.

Irenaeus describes in the final volume of his book the overthrow of Satan as occurring in our Lord Jesus Chrst’s overcoming of the three temptations by Satan in the wilderness. These are temptations of material comfort, of willful arrogance, and of power over others. They were all present in the Gnostic heresy by apostate Christians claiming to know better than the apostolic tradition, and they bedevil us today in American culture. But St. Irenaeus reminds us of how our Lord has freed us from the deceptive bonds of these delusional temptations for all time.

By overcoming these temptations, Irenaeus writes, our Lord overcame them for all humanity. Satan’s name in the Greek is diabolos, from which we get the English devil, and it means slanderer or opposer, literally that which separates as opposed to symbolos, from which we get symbolic, which means to unite. Ireneaus refers to Satan’s name as synonymous with apostate, those whose heresies he refutes in his early writing. Our Lord called Satan the liar and the father of lies, setting up prelest or delusion in which we become unable to love because we are living lies about ourselves and others, in a false virtual reality made from our own objectification and essentialization, as if we would take the role of God. This is the heart of the Gnostic heresy as St Ireneaus described it offering us practical help in our spiritual warfare today.

The Gnostics falsely sought to split up the unity of God into a number of divine “Aeons”, distinguishing between the “High God” and the wicked “Demiurge” who created the world in a counterfeit mockery of Trinitarian belief. In this they are like modern unitarians distinguishing between the material mechanisms of evolution as cause and vague spiritual powers either attributed to a deist watchmaker or to neopagan entities. With the gnostics’ splitting up of God came their splitting up of the intellect and the physical. This is like how many people today assume that they can do what they like with their body as a kind of meat puppet of their will but there is no integrity of body and soul. In such false belief there is no need for chastity because what people do with their will falsely is believed to be disconnected from their body. It is the tendency to make human beings into the equivalent of computer avatars, using technology to manipulate themselves and others, and not being mindful or grounded in holistic lives. With this comes the other primary gnostic belief that certain select people can gain the elite knowledge needed to understand truth and then to control and manipulate others. Thus the gnostics sought to twist and misuse scripture for individual interpretations. And the powers of this world still seek to do this today.

Against these beliefs, Irenaeus emphasized the importance of the unity of God in the triune Trinity, and the essential significance of the Incarnation, in tandem with the Crucifixion and Resurrection to our salvation in the resurrection of the body. He emphasized apostolic succession in the one apostolic and catholic Church, that God-given tradition that ensures in the Christian gospel we live in the Church in the body of Christ, in open and not some kind of secret or elite-driven evolving knowledge used to control and manipulate others. We do not find ourselves by asserting ourselves as possessors of special knowledge. Rather, we empty ourselves in Christ in His holy catholic and apostolic Church through the Eucharist and ascetic struggle with God’s grace.

So much of modern culture now wanders away from the apostolic succession to gnostic tendencies such as transgenderism and technocracy or rule by technology. But Orthodox Christianity shows us how God’s Providence sustains us in His Church unto the ages of ages. Even the sufferings we experience are part of that Providence and for our salvation when we turn to our Lord in His Church which is our ark of salvation amid demonic renewals of ancient heresies in these latter days. As St. Irenaeus pointed out, Christ as the new Adam systematically undoes what Adam did. When Adam was disobedient about the fruit of a tree, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of the tree. Christ overcame Satan’s temptations. The faithfulness of the Theotokos undid the faithlessness of Eve. In the Incarnation and life of Christ was recapitulated or summed up human life, and Christ by living it, sanctifies it with his divinity, providing as it were a true antidote or vaccine to sin.

I’ll close with words directly from St .Irenaeus, the faithful spiritual grandson of the Evangelist John:

The Lord of all gave to His apostles the power of the gospel, and by them we also have learned the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God—as the Lord said to them, ‘He who hears you hears Me, and he who despises you despises Me, and Him Who sent Me’ [Lk.10:16]. For we learned the plan of our salvation from no other than from those through whom the gospel came to us. The first preached it abroad, and then later by the will of God handed it down to us in Scriptures, to be the foundation and pillar of our faith. For it is not right to say that they preached before they had come to perfect knowledge, as some dare to say, boasting that they are the correctors of the apostles. For after our Lord had risen from the dead, and they were clothed with the power from on high when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were filled with all things and had perfect knowledge. They went out to the ends of the earth, preaching the good things that come to us from God, and proclaiming peace from heaven to all men, all and each of them equally being in possession of the gospel of God. (From Against the Heresies, III)

For more, please read Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, available in an excellent new one-volume English edition from Ex Fontibus, https://www.exfontibus.com/products/irenaeus-against-heresies. St. Irenaeus’ work is also posted online in Englishat https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103.htm

With thanks also to the article on St Ireneaus on the Orthodox Wiki, https://orthodoxwiki.org/Irenaeus_of_Lyons

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What I learned at the West End Fair

It’s been a few years since our family was able to get to our county fair, which actually is called the West End Fair, for the West End of Union County, PA, where it is located, near Laurelton. (The actual county fair apparently was canceled a long time ago near our college town, the former grounds of which are now the Farmers Market.)

We got there Tuesday night and it was as if timeless, as I commented to our sons, who nodded in agreement. For Tolkien fans, it was a bit like a timeless Elvish encampment, but Northern Appalachian-style (maybe a farfetched comparison, but considering that some claim Tolkien modeled the Shire on Eastern Kentucky, maybe not so much so…).

A Statler Brothers act featured four older gentlemen in red-white-and-blue suits singing on the stage numbers like “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” and “I’m Proud to be an American.”

As the twilight deepened into night, the roar of the tractor pull event, and the lowing of cattle and bleating of sheep and goats in the livestock pavilions, mingled with the rush of carnival rights like a tilt-a-whirl. Strings of Italian lights made the fairground into a magical land with the bright marquees of food trailers.

The Gadsden Flag was flying at the Republican booth.

We stopped at the chocolate malted marquee, and I had to explain to my teenage sons what a chocolate malted is (the family concessioners, in a concession to the times, kindly also had signs explaining the same).

The Gideons handed me a pocket New Testament with book of Proverbs, which has a small American flag on an inside front page, King James Version.

The crowd of all ages was mainly white, apparently rural, with a few people of color, and all seemingly congenial.

I was in my black riassa, cassock, and skufia, my Russian Orthodox Deacon garb, and ran into a couple families from our Church in the darkening shadows amid the carnival’s twinkling lights. I only got some curious looks, no hostile ones.

“I remember hearing the original Statler Brothers live with Johnny Cash,” commented one of the fellow parishioners I met, who like me has gone from “heartland” American to being a Russian Orthodox Christian in America.

Talking with her husband, we agreed on how special the evening there was. It reminded me of a Ray Bradbury novel, and the carnivals he wrote about in his native Waukegan, Illinois, my home country, far from here in the northern Appalachians, but also set in a heartland American culture.

In writing this now, though, I reflect now on how Bradbury (whom I had the privilege of interviewing a few times about those childhood memories) put a touch of horror into his carnival scenes, especially in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Death stalks us even in high summer at carnival time, the Nazgûl are in the wings even at Woody End when the Hobbits have a safe night out with the Elves in the Shire.

However timeless even the West End Fair may seem to be, it is a passing moment, and an old American heartland culture it represents, however deeply rooted, is at least as deeply challenged as is rooted today. Like the old Irish otherworld stories, where time seemed to stand still in the fairy mounds, there is always an escape back, whether forced or desired. Friends told us that people were missing from the fair that night, gone to a National Night Out event to provide a “space place” for children to go in a neighboring rural county, and to a school board meeting in the nearest larger town featuring arguments among parents, taxpayers, and activists over issues such as Critical Race Theory.

The hostility I receive for my “exotic” faith in central Pennsylvania comes more, ironically, from the “cosmopolitan” college town in which we live, complete with its academic Russophobes, who celebrate difference in words but not in fact, than any trouble from what the latter’s progressive denizens would label unfairly the insular benighted rural West End of the county. Our college town’s community rituals lack the church stalls and Gospel music found at the West End Fair. Instead they celebrate a raw kind of ideological political power and privilege (cloaked in radical utopian ideology), which ironically reflects more the materialistic Vanity Fair condemned by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress than the rural farmland celebration with its signs of faith.

But even at the West End Fair, as our friends and I discussed briefly, we now wait for another historical shoe to drop, like the Roman poet writing of waiting for the barbarians to arrive. There is no safe refuge in country life or old time carnivals in these undefined latter days, however refreshing they may be in their best qualities, anymore than in Elvish gatherings in Tolkien’s woods with Mordor on the march. Troubles are here, too, sin and the cyberworld reaches all of us, here as much as anywhere. Deep troubles stalking the world today and slouching toward Jerusalem lurk in the Fair’s shadows as well, demons that troubled Dostoevsky before the coming of the Communist holocaust to Russia at work within America as much or more as anywhere else.

Yet even more so do God’s love, His protecting grace and angels, and the protecting veil of His holy Mother, cover us in this and every place.

Pray that we may all find shelter and refuge and enduring joy in the Church of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, within His Body. May we with God’s help further the spread of the Orthodox Gospel in today’s rootless America, which like all mortal realms stays not the same and will not last, but still can find a deeper spiritual unity, sobornost, only in Him. As ancient hymns of our Church proclaim:

O Lord of the Powers, be with us, for in times of distress, we have no other help than Thee.

How great a God is our God, He is the God Who worketh wonders.

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God the Father in Orthodox Iconography

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.)

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Ecosemiotics, the book

“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.

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Holy Royal Martyrs, pray to God for us

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

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“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”

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.

Photos by my godson, Luke (Austin) Soboleski.

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

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Love in truth: The Nicene Creed

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.

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