Nature as Activity: The Orthodox Teaching of Metropolitan Anthony

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.)

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The Sunday of the Blind Man

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.

Christ is Risen!

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Sunday of Saint Svetlana

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.

Holy St. Photini-Svetlana, pray to God for us!

Christ is Risen!

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The Return of the King? Jacobitism vs. Jacobinism in Appalachia and Russia

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.

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The Chiasmus of Creation

I have been reading and benefiting greatly from the book The Shield of Psalmic Prayer by Donald Sheehan, edited by his widow and fellow laborer in Christ, Xenia Sheehan.

My first contact with the work of Subdeacon and Professor Sheehan of blessed memory came from his beautiful essay on Dostoevsky, in which he concluded that the focus of that great Russian Orthodox Christian writer’s novels was on “self-emptying” rather than “self-assertion,” a point upon which I cite Prof. Sheehan often with my own college literature students now.

His book has inspired me to delve deeply into the Psalms unworthily, and to try to extend my reading of them to the daily cycle of the Orthodox Church.

But it also renewed my interest in chiasmus in the Bible, in which poetry echoes around a center, first and last verses paralleling, then second and penultimate, and so forth to one that is a kind of poetic keystone in the middle.

This mirrors the liturgical time, the conciliarity, the sobornost or hidden-yet-expressed spiritual relatedness of the Church of the “hidden God,” Who was recognized by the Wise Thief as embodied next to him on the Cross on Holy Friday. So we repeat before Communion ,”Remember me O Lord in Thy Kingdom.”

I have written about this with regard to the Genesis account of creation in an essay on the Christian ecopoetics of the same in my edited collection Re-Imagining Nature.

There I in my very limited way pointed out the chiasmic poetics and time of the Genesis account, which defies efforts of atheistic scientism and technocracy today to deny the truth of Creation, following the Blessed Seraphim Rose’s compendium of patristic writings on Creation in Genesis, Creation, and Early Man, as collected by Abbot Damascene in refutation of secular evolutionary views of time.

Reading Genesis, like Psalmic poetics, as chiasmic, involves noting the parallels between the seven days, which are both a sequence and a pattern of circularity based upon our relationship to God the Creator, the God-man Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Creation is from the Holy Trinity, although “through Him” the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed tells us was all made, meaning in particular Jesus Christ.

Thus the first day God created the heaven and the earth, the Holy Spirit moved upon the waters, and He said, let there be light.

On the seventh day He saw that all He had made was good or beautiful, and he rested.

These would form a chiasmic whole or pair.

Then the second day, a firmament divided the waters above from the waters below. And on the sixth day, we are told that man is made in the image and likeness of God, a reflection or mirroring as it were, like the waters above and the waters below, the ultimate among the beasts that emerge on the land, with dominion over the others.

On the third day, dry land and sea are differentiated and the earth brings forth plants, and on the fifth day, He brings forth the birds of the air, and the beings that emerges from the sea and water.

Then, in the keystone of a chiasmic reading of the poetics of Creation in Genesis, God creates lights as signs in the firmament of heaven (indicating the fundamentally living and embodied but symbolic nature of Creation), and two great lights, the sun and the moon, which also symbolize in biblical terms the Son, Christ, and the Church and the Mother of God, as in Revelation 12. This is the focus of the Creation account in a chiasmically poetic reading, unfolding our relation to our Lord Jesus Christ as central to Creation, and confounding the godless accounts of modern materialistic scientism, which in the spirit of anti-Christ would deny the Incarnation as the focus of Creation.

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The Myrrh-bearing Women and Joseph of Arimathea: Britain, Gildas, and a Wedding

The first peer-reviewed academic publication I authored was a chapter in a collection, Via Crucis, in memory of J.E. Cross edited by Tom Hall, a professor of mine, with assistance from Charles Wright and Tom Hill, my dissertation director and his dissertation director respectively. Thus was I mentored into an extended academic family of the old school, one rich in source study and aspects of philology and paleography in particular.

My article was on “Gildas and Glastonbury,” and I thought of it today as I served as third Deacon at St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Mayfield PA, a Church with its own rich stories from the past up-valley in Pennsylvania’s northeastern coal region, and its rich living traditions.

That article was based on my M.A. thesis in the Early British Studies program at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, supervised by D.P. Kirby in the History Department with tutoring also from Marged Haycock in early Welsh studies and Jeffrey Davies in archaeology, among others. That time spent in Wales studying early Christianity and saints in Britain and visiting the places associated with them was, unknowingly at the time, also part of my path to Orthodox Christianity, a pilgrimage before I knew I was a pilgrim.

In the Cathedral this morning, Archpriest John Sorochka, our Dean, gave an inspiring homily on the dedication of the Myrrh-bearing women, asking us if we today will choose to have such conviction to nurture and preserve our faith.

With them commemorated on this third Sunday of Pascha each year is St. Joseph of Arimathea.

He helped make arrangements for Jesus’ burial despite the hostility of the religious establishment in corrupt collusion with the political powers of the day.

But he is also known to tradition in England’s West Country as the apostle to Britain. Early Church tradition has other early apostles to Britain as well, including St. Aristobulus of the Seventy, and the Apostle Simon Zelotes. And various traditions and legends credit other early biblical figures with bringing Christianity to the western isles of Europe as well. A branch from a blooming bush descended from his staff, according to English tradition, is still brought at Christmas time to the English monarch’s table.

One relatively early source is the Celtic St. Gildas, who in Britain wrote in the sixth century of how Christianity had come to Britain at (depending on how his Latin is read) a very early date, only several years after Jesus’ Crucifiction, Resurrection and Ascension. These traditions became associated in legend with Glastonbury. Hence the title of my article.

Suffice it to say that there is quite a complex of legends in the Glastonbury landscape, with perhaps more questions than answers, but a landscape of mystery and faith in which the Arthurian legends are also embedded. My article made the case that an early date for Christianity in Britain at large and the West Country in particular was completely possible as indicated by recent archaeological interpretations of Roman British remains, among other evidence including Gildas’ text.

By coincidence that was meaningful, the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women and Joseph of Arimathea was also the day on which Matushka Olga and I married, in the small old Russian Orthodox Cathedral near downtown Chicago. Holy Trinity Cathedral had been designed by the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan in beautiful Russian style. St. John Kochurev of Chicago, the first priest-martyr of the Bolshevik Revolution, had helped to oversee the construction.

So many strands came together that day of our wedding. There was the rich tradition of Orthodox Christianity, to which I had converted a few years before on a torturous but ultimately unworthily blessed path, thanks to God’s grace. There was the Russian Orthodoxy of my wife’s background, into which I entered specifically, connecting with my love of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s writings since I had been in high school.

It was the first Orthodox Church into which I had wandered several years earlier, when I was asked if I needed a wife, prophetically it seems now, by the wife of the senior priest, Fr. Sergei Garklavs, himself keeper of the famed Tikhvin icon in its exile from Communist Russia. His son would be my witness at the wedding.

Then there was the connection of the temple at which the wedding occurred to Louis Sullivan and Chicago architecture, a meaningful link for me as a former writer on historic architecture and planning for the Chicago Sun-Times, and a native of the city, with deep roots there, who loved its history.

There was the presence of many friends from different parts of our past, including Jerry Lewis, a Native American Potawatomi elder and mentor to me, with an interest in Russian culture himself, who had helped me to understand the Native history of my region and a lot of practical aspects of life, even as I traveled towards a Russian Orthodox spiritual tradition itself rich with Indigenous American cultural engagements in Alaska.

The ringing bells of the cathedral kept on for a long time at what was to be the start of the ceremony, as we awaited my elderly mother’s arrival. Our Swedish neighbor Leif Olson, whom I could always reach at the last Swedish deli hangout in my mom’s old neighborhood of Andersonville where she had grown up on a farm in the city, was driving. He picked her up typically very late, then sped recklessly through the city streets like a last-minute Viking.

They roared up to the doors, and then my Bride and I were crowned in the Orthodox ceremony, circling with the priest, symbolizing our marriage in Christ. The ancient Christian rites, not contractual but covenental, with the iconography and chanting, evoked the living tradition of the faith continuous from apostolic times. That faith rooted in my family back into pre-Schism days in England and around the Baltic, and perhaps to St. Joseph of Arimathea among others. I am not a skeptic about the mystery of Orthodox Christian faith tradition that ultimately must be experienced.

A while before Fr. John at that Cathedral married us, he had counseled us by asking, “what is the most important thing in a marriage?” I said love. Matushka said respect. He said, “No you’re both wrong! It’s commitment.”

So it is, just as in the account of the Myrrh-bearing Women and St. Joseph of Arimathea. In our mission’s Bible Study reading the Epistles of the New Testament this year in light of the Church Fathers, we have discussed the Apostle John’s epistolary emphasis on how we as Christians must “love in truth.” That truth is our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” There lies our commitment, our conviction, our faith, and the goal and source of our love.

Fast forward to this morning. At the end of the service, “many years” was song in Slavonic for us and for another couple, Deacon Michael and Matushka Masha Pavuk, celebrating their anniversary also. It was like an echo of the same song from a movie that I had loved long before becoming Orthodox, The Deer Hunter, with its long Russian wedding scene. But now this was real, and I was in it, part of the story, itself connected now to the Story of stories. So the tradition of the Myrrh-bearing women and St. Joseph of Arimathea, their conviction and spreading of the Gospel, is real as we live it and join them, unworthily, through God’s grace.

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The Sorrowful Epistles

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in a time when the West seemed coming apart amid social divisions and radical movements, the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Philaret, issued three “sorrowful epistles” highlighting the spiritual dimension of the turbulent era amid historically Christian countries, in the heresy of modern ecumenism as a form of chiliasm. Vladyka Philaret had survived persecution during his loyal stay with his flock of exiles from Bolshevik Russia in China after the Communists came to power there, throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. Not long after his final departure from China he was elected, as the youngest Bishop of the ROCOR Synod, to be the new First Hierarch of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the free diaspora. His holy care for his flock was attested by his incorrupt remains, now in a vault below the altar at Holy Trinity Church in Jordanville, NY.

Then-Archimandrite Philaret in 1953 during his time of trial in Communist China caring for his flock.

Linked directly below is a copy of the Sorrowful Epistles, in pdf form for reading in sequence online or printed out, and another copy that can be printed out double-sided for stapling as a booklet.

Some further context and background thoughts follow below the links.

PDF in sequence


PDF for back-to-back booklet printing

Two famous historical figures from twentieth-century American Orthodoxy in particular commented in different ways on the Sorrowful Epistles.

The influential American convert, writer, and American monastic pioneer Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote in 1976, in relation to the epistles and other issues: “Among the primates of the Orthodox Churches today, there is only one from whom is always expected–and not only by members of his own Church, but by very many in a number of other Orthodox Churches as well–the clear voice of Orthodox righteousness and truth and conscience, untainted by political considerations or calculations of any kind. The voice of Metropolitan Philaret of New York, Chief Hierarch of the Russian Church Outside of Russia, is the only fully Orthodox voice among ail the Orthodox primates. In this he is like to the Holy Fathers of ancient times, who placed purity of Orthodoxy above all else, and he stands in the midst of today’s confused religious world as a solitary champion of Orthodoxy in the spirit of the Ecumenical Councils.” (Orthodox Word, vol. 12, No. 1, Jan .-Feb., 1976).

By contrast, Archpriest Alexander Schmemann, who became a leading force in the Orthodox Church in America, which attained its autocephaly in 1970 from the Moscow Patriarchate in the Soviet era, had criticized Metropolitan Philaret’s first Sorrowful Epistle in an article in The Orthodox Church journal, in 1969. He called the epistle in effect the product of a schismatic group, and that its contents encouraged further schism. He set Metropolitan Philaret’s view at odds with the presence of celebrated Orthodox figures, like the scholar Fr. Georges Florovsky, at World Council of Churches gatherings. Fr. Schmemann concluded, in condemning the Metropolitan for writing the letter, that “to use this issue [of ecumenism] for adding new divisions to our Church, for creating an atmosphere of suspicion, hatred, accusations and ultimately, schisms, seems to me a tragedy and a sin.”

The test of time, however, has been kind to Metropolitan Philaret’s letters as works of spiritual guidance, strongly yet calmly criticizing the expanding and immersive mindset of global ecumenism, as the latter has accelerated in influence, at odds with traditional Christianity, in subsequent generations. Fr. Schmemann framed much of his criticism by referencing the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad as an isolated body in world Orthodoxy. But with the subsequent reunion of ROCOR with the Moscow Patriarchate after the fall of Communism, it was Schmemannn’s jurisdiction that arguably had a more awkward position in world Orthodoxy, given the lack of the Constantinople Patriarchate’s full recognition of the grant of its autocephaly. In addition, controversy over the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s heightened emphasis on primacy in recent years, in relation to schism in Ukraine, its stepped-up diplomacy with the Roman Catholic papacy, and its controversial 2016 gathering at Crete, underscored the significance of Metropolitan Philaret’s arguments. Finally, retrospective awareness of Vladyka Philaret’s saintly life of trial has given him now a kind of authority that (without obscuring the academic achievements of Archpriest Schmemann or those he cited) today backgrounds the spiritual and historical importance of his Sorrowful Epistles to the Orthodox Christian world, which today may seem like letters to us from a modern past nonetheless foreshadowing anti-Christian upheavals in the world today.

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St. Thomas Sunday & our Modern Dilemma

A homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg Pa on the Second Sunday of Pascha, 26 April 7529 (May 9, 2021 on the civil calendar.

The answer

Christ is Risen! In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus breathes on His disciples after the Resurrection, to impart unto them the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness or retention of sins, prior to the coming of the Spirit to the whole Church, which would occur after His Ascension at Pentecost. This speaks to the Apostolic succession of the Bishops and priests of our Lord’s Church. St. John Chrysostom wrote of this passage that, “The priest, even if he rightly orders his own life, if he does not have an anxious care for yours, yes and that of all those around him, will depart with the wicked into hell; and often when not betrayed by his own conduct, he perishes by yours, if he has not righty performed his part… “For they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account”…. for this is the Faith, to receive things not seen, since “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (citing Hebrews).

There is a recognition here of the Church in mysterious unity as the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, of which we are all a part, as we communicate in the Eucharist and the other mysteries of the Church including Confession. This emerges too from the wondrous realization of the Apostle Thomas, who although his faith wavered for a moment in doubt, experienced the bodily presence of Christ and awareness of His being fully God and fully man, which has come down to us as a blessing for all of us gathered in Orthodox worship around the world today on Thomas Sunday. “My Lord and my God,” the Apostle Thomas said. There are icons of the Apostle that in Greek are captioned with the message, “the touch of Thomas,” and in Slavonic, “Believing Thomas,” but sometimes in English rendered incompletely as “Doubting Thomas.” The Apostle’s touch brought forth an experiential wisdom, an embodied inspiration, that are at the heart of the mysterious of the Orthodox Church and our participation in her. Orthodoxy is not metaphysical, it does not operate by analogy like Scholasticism. It involves full experience of the uncreated divine energies of grace. Those uncreated energies are embodied grace. They come from the Holy Trinity as a whole, and especially the Holy Spirit, which in Orthodoxy is not reduced by the filioque to a secondary role, breathed upon us.

St. Thomas felt this when he touched Jesus and realized the embodied and transcendent to be together in mystery in His body. “Thomas, being once weaker in faith than the other apostles,” says St John Chrysostom, “toiled through the grace of God more bravely, more zealously and tirelessly than them all, so that he went preaching over nearly all the earth, not fearing to proclaim the Word of God to savage nations.”

St. Thomas realized the Church to be the conciliarity of the people and the mystical hierarchy together in that spiritual unity or communion with Jesus Christ called sobornost in Slavonic. This empowered his incredible missionary work as far as India. But the Apostle Thomas today, on this Sunday after Pascha, also stands for us as modern people who have found refuge from the ruins of secularism, in our salvation in the Orthodox Church. Like the Apostle Thomas we come to Eucharist and say “My Lord and my God,” and experience more than just religious feeling, but His body and blood. And our Savior tells us, blessed are those who have not seen but believe, knowing of the experience of the Believing Thomas. Today, all the Communists and post-human technocrats operating in the spirit of Anti-Christ in this world cannot prevail against His Church, His Body. They cannot take from us that embodied experience of the mysteries, from which we like St. Thomas exclaim, “My Lord and my God.” We can unworthily follow the Apostle in evangelism work near and far. May the Lord our God, with the intercessions of the Believing Thomas, prosper our efforts to build this mission in her work to evangelize our region for the Orthodox Church, which is the Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

The modern dilemma?
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