Greenways to humility

The Bucknell Greenway as a Living and Learning Laboratory in the Susquehanna Greenway

(presentation at the Susquehanna River Symposium at Bucknell today)

JRR Tolkien wrote

The road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say….
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with wear feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Tolkien’s verse evokes for me the spirit of the greenway as a movement and a term of art in the twenty-first century. A greenway is a corridor of ecological, historical, recreational, and educational renewal. It highlights the relation of the many ways of the earth beyond our ken, our limits, and human community as in the lighted inn in Tolkien’s poetry. It is embedded as poetry in a grim fantasy history of a struggle with evil whose symbol is often interpreted as a nexus of technological power and oppression of nature and human beings appropriate for his era in the mid-20th century, and even more perhaps today. A medieval English poet referred to the greenway to Paradise,  and it reminds us that like Abraham and Sarah we are pilgrims or sojourners on the earth, and as Native cultures teach us as such we should be humble and light in our footprints.

That a greenway should foster renewal in ecology, history, recreation, and education, rather than only or mainly using the term restoration, involves careful diction. Renewal or rebirth is distinct from what we call restoration, which can be a fundamentally reactionary term. There was a restoration in England of the Monarchy in the 1600s, but we can never restore mechanically the original ecosystems and cultures of a region. That was understood as party of the tragedy of human life rather than the sense of unlimited progress that science instituted as central to the global West and what author Paul Kingsnorth calls the age of the Machine. However, we can seek to renew our ecology and cultural life. The philosopher of mind Evan Thompson has noted the etymological relation of the term ecopoiesis both to engineering an ecological restoration and writing poetry or a novel. Ecopoiesis literally from Greek rootes means shaping the hope. That is done through ecopoetics and also through ecopoiesis as an engineering term for moving and shaping the earth in a restorative or renewing way, as in the ecological restoration work nearby at the Montandon marsh. Ecological restoration in this sense is renewal.

I’m here to talk about a new project that has been years in the making, the Bucknell Greenway, which is envisioned to connect with the Susquehanna Greenway, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Water Trail, and thus with a network of greenways throughout the country and globally. But a greenway potentially is also a fractal of larger Creation, in the sense of being personal as well as connective.

Experience of that fractal nature of greenways started for me growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Chicago, near a place called Indian Boundary Park, and near the place where my grandfather had grown up on a farm in what became the city. My grandfather’s farm was along the edge of Rosehill Cemetery and by a parkway designed as a road across a marsh to the cemetery gates with little sculpted markers. That road, Rosehill Drive, was the scene of Memorial Day parades when I was a child, in which I imagined ancient veterans marching along to bands as Civil War veterans, although that would have been impossible; looking back I think they were a handful of Spanish-American War veterans, which seems enough of a time-travel dimension along Rosehill Drive.

But I knew from my grandfather that that road to the cemetery and the marshland where his farm was nearby also had been a dwelling place of Indians, and later learned more about this from my first Indian mentor Jerry Lewis, a Citizens Potawatomi elder and community college educator, and from Helen Tanner, director of the Darcy McNickle Center at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The road to Rosehill, and the travel down to the neighborhood of my grandfather’s old farm, had become a kind of greenway to me through history and into the natural world still found in old oak groves in the cemetery amid what was then the second largest city in the U.S. This lit my way to becoming first an American history major at Brown, where I had the at-the-time unrecognized privilege of studying unworthily with authors of two of the volumes in the Oxford History of America, Gordon Wood and James Patterson, as well as with the Southern regionalist author Flannery O’Connor’s writer friend John Hawkes, and then on to being a journalist. As urban affairs writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, I spent much time writing about the emerging greenway movement in the Chicago area, and its interrelation to the burgeoning ecological restoration movement in prairie savannah in the region. I continued that interest on in graduate school to working as a writer for Openlands, a conservation group in Chicago, and the Illinois Nature Conservancy, and became involved as a writer with the nation’s first heritage corridor, the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. When I came to Bucknell I was involved with colleagues and students in the designation by the National Park Service of the portion of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River adjoining our campus as part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Water Trail. This was done especially through the leadership of Sid Jamieson, a new friend and mentor, an elder of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Involved in that project were the origins of the Environmental Humanities Working Group and Initiative at Bucknell, the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project, and what is now the Place Studies Program of the Bucknell Center for Sustainability and the Environment (formerly the Environmental Humanities Initiative).

Partly emerging from such past collaborative efforts involving many colleagues and students, Bucknell has designated through the President’s Sustainability Council a four-mile loop of pathway for bicyclists, hikers, walkers, strollers, runners, and those seeking solace in the outdoors and natural world. This is also envisioned to include micro-restoration of bio-habitats, native tree and shrub plantings, public art, public storytelling and historical work, some of which hopefully will be featured online through QR codes and apps. We are in discussions with biologists, historians, public storytellers, psychologists, and most importantly students for this work. We hope that students will help link the greenway to the river and to the downtown and county rail trail, and thus to the regional and national greenways already mentioned. We have students already working on public monuments for the greenway, such as a Native American sculpture, led by the Sid Jamieson Research Fellow Quintina Smith, a student, together with a Bucknell working group of Native Americans, and also the Bucknell in the Civil War and Underground Railroad student working group working, which will help develop an artwork showing the links of Bucknell to the Underground Railroad and the Battle of Gettsyburg. The Susquehanna River is also an historical greenway of the Civil War linking us and Gettysburg, from the Lewisburg Cemetery where the young Bucknell graduate Andrew Tucker is buried (after being fatally wounded fighting for the Union at that battle) and the campus where Charles Bell lived, an escaped slave who traversed the Underground Railroad, down to Gettysburg and beyond. The campus Greenway also passes along the Miller Run watershed and hopefully will help open up the university’s riverfront in the long term.

In Chicago, visionaries such as Jens Jensen, Jane Addams, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and early ecological scientists helped encourage development of a belt of greenways that became the Chicago parkland lakefront, the boulevard system, the Indiana Dunes parkland, and the ring of forest preserves in Chicago’s suburbs, where much ecological restoration has occurred. In the new era of greenways those early 20th-century developments are reborn.

At Bucknell we have a significant legacy of visionary landscape in our campus’ green settings as well as its environs, including the
Lewisburg Cemetery that emerged from the American Arcadian landscape movement of the 19th century, and the boulevard-like drive from the Civil War monument at St. George down past the President’s house and around past the Grove into the heart of campus today. We hope this new greenway project will renew on ecological, historical, educational, and recreational levels that legacy of our beautiful campus. We also hope that it will help renew the liberal arts in our era, by enriching the definition of residential learning at a liberal arts university. The old meaning of the liberal arts back into Byzantine times involved what has been called the Hellenic-Christian synthesis, a synthesis of reason and spirituality. The trivium and quadrivium involved connecting man with the cosmos through signs and symbols, and hopefully the Greenway can help renew that project in an era when the liberal arts seem increasingly in need of renewal, sadly.

The Bucknell Greenway is a community effort that in our divided country and society, whose divisions even enter into our area and campus, hopefully can bring people together. The renewal or rebirth inherent in a greenway project helps overcome binaries, including that of nature and the human mind, and also renews mental and ecological health. I encourage you to come join us in this project of the Ecological Conservation and Restoration Working Group of the President’s Sustainability Council. Please contact me at with your ideas and for ideas on how you can be involved.


Feast of the Transfiguration with St. John the Wonderworker

In Genesis, we are told man was made according to the image of God, and that means in Jesus Christ, through Whom we realize our true personhood as human beings. The Feast of Transfiguration reminds us of this, and at this time when traditionally the first fruits of harvest are blessed, we remember also the fruits we are capable of bearing through Christ. Today I’d like to share a homily from our mission’s patron saint, the modern American saint St. John of Shanhai and San Francisco, who speaks to this feast.


When He created the world, God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26). God’s image manifests in man’s mental capabilities, in his authority over nature, his power, and his ability to create. God’s likeness in man consists in his moral perfection, his spiritual strivings, and in his possibility of attaining sanctity. God’s image and likeness, in which our fore-parents were created, was fully reflected in them before the fall. Sin disrupted both the former and the latter, although it did not entirely deprive man of them. Man retained his mind and the other qualities that gave him God’s image, but he needs to apply greater effort to develop them, yet he achieves only a small measure of what his fore-parents had received in full.

The yearning to be the likeness of God has remained in man to a certain degree, although it sometimes wanes beyond all recognition. In order to return to man his original closeness to God, the Son of God descended to earth and became incarnate. He put on human nature and became like man in every aspect except for that of sin. He came to recreate our first created beauty in the image of God. But if in the beginning, God created man in His image and likeness, then in order to recreate the first image, man’s own participation is also needed. Man must strive for perfection in order to attain it through the grace and help of God. The Lord showed the way to perfection through His teachings and by His own example. This is the path of moral perfection, self denial, and readiness to free oneself of everything sinful.

Sin entered deeply into human nature, mingling with it, as it were. Every person is born with the seed of sin, and the struggle to be free of it is a struggle with his own self. That is why this struggle is so agonizing, but it is necessary in order to come closer to God. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Mt. 16:24). The cross that we must take up is that very struggle with our own weaknesses, vices, and sin. Gradually freeing ourselves from them, the man comes closer to God, in Whose image he was created. Man himself does not have sufficient strength to accomplish this, but he is aided by God’s grace, which He gave through the Church created by His incarnate Son. For this, He became incarnate—to raise once again His fallen image.

On Mt. Tabor, Christ manifested the beauty and glory of His Divinity, so that the apostles might know of it and through them, the whole world, the likeness of Whom is man, and to show what man can attain when he spiritually upraises himself. To the degree that man purifies himself of sin and comes closer to God, the glory of God is ever more clearly reflected in him. That is why saints are called in Russian prepodobny, meaning “like unto”. The glory of God is reflected in their souls as in a mirror, filling them with its radiance. When his earthly struggles are over, the degree of likeness that he has achieved is finally and permanently sealed. When the eternal Kingdom comes and all people are resurrected, their souls are united with their bodies, and Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mt. 12:43), as Christ Himself said.


Those are St. John’s words. Today, as we worship here in the university chapel, it reminds us of early days in the mission when we worshiped in various spaces from picnic groves to hotels. Our Bishops have asked us to keep in prayer for our building project. Services like this help. For where “two or more are gathered in My name,” our Lord Jesus Christ tells us, “there am I also in the midst of thee.”

Glory to God!


The Z factor: “Necessary” vs. “Just” War

It has been noted that “z” is sometimes a mathematical symbol for the unknown.

The Russian “special military operation” or invasion of Ukraine is symbolized on the Russian side by the letter Z for ambiguous reasons.

But the eruption of war in Ukraine earlier this year was an eruption of the unknown for the West — a disruption of globalization, of what President George Bush Sr. once called the “new world order” of the post-Soviet world a generation ago, with potential realignment of geopolitical tectonic plates globally.

Philosopher Ivan Ilyin, 1921 portrait by Mikhail Nesterov

The current conflict (in tandem with heightened stress over Taiwan) has aligned Russia and China more closely, and emphasized the potential of the so-called BRICS axis (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) to compete in some sense with the “global West” of EU, NATO, Japan, and ANZUS. Many countries (including the governments of an estimated 80% of the world’s population) hover in various degrees apart from or in opposition to the global West’s new “coalition of the willing” against Russia over the Ukraine war.

That most of the world stands apart from the NATO-based coalition on the Ukraine war not only reflects likely resentment and push-back against perceived Western hubris and neocolonialism, but also highlights a deep if obscure fault line between two civilizational zones that cut across Ukraine.

That fault line becomes visible in seemingly esoteric but deep differences between the now-secular “just war” tradition of the West (originally derived from the Latin Christianity of Augustine and Aquinas) and the “necessary war” tradition of still-overtly Christian polities of the East. The latter has roots in the Byzantine civilizational zone to which Russia is self-identified heir. In fact, the modern Russian exile-philosopher Ivan Ilyin, the prime twentieth-century articulator of the “necessary war” tradition, is sometimes claimed to be Vladimir Putin’s favorite philosopher, although some of Ilyin’s supporters say his application to current issues is more complex than any simple identification with Russian nationalism. Putin nonetheless has distributed copies of Ilyin’s books to officials across the Russian Federation. A renowned Hegelian scholar and pioneer of Russian philosophy of law from before the Revolution, categorizable in political philosophy as a “conservative liberal Orthodox Christian” but also an essayist on creativity and culture, Ilyin in the 1920s became unofficial philosopher of General Wrangel’s White Army movement against Communist totalitarianism and genocide. While unfairly labeled fascist recently by some “Antifa” historians, despite his clear disavowal of Nazism and being targeted in exile by the Gestapo, Ilyin has been cleared of such charges in less polemical scholarship on his work.

Even so, the doctrine of the “necessary war” goes back further than Ilyin’s White Army affinities, all the way back to Byzantine times in Orthodox Christian social teaching. It involved a denial of any war being just.

St. Basil the Great, for example, wrote that it was best for a soldier who killed an enemy, even if legally in a right cause defending Christendom, to be excommunicated for three years. The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena wrote in amazement of Latin-Norman ecclesiastical leaders arriving in the Near East armed as Crusaders when Byzantine bishops and clergy were forbidden from wielding arms.

Indeed, the Crusader war culture of the West left deeply negative memories in Orthodox Christian historiography. Crusaders from the West were seen as having pillaged Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, dealing a long-term fatal blow to the Christian Empire. Northern Crusades wreaked havoc on Slavic Christian realms. Such efforts were seen as righteous and good for the souls of the warriors involved in Latin Christendom.

University of Ottawa Prof. Paul Robinson, in a 2003 study of Ilyin’s “necessary war” doctrine, has contrasted key aspects of “necessary war,” as found in Ilyin’s 1925 book On the Resistance to Evil by Force (a book endorsed at the time by Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) of blessed memory, first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), with the “just war” doctrine of the West. Ilyin wrote of several conditions for necessity in arguing against Tolstoyan pacifism, which he said among pre-revolutionary Russian elites helped pave the way for the Communist takeover with its ensuing mass murders and cultural genocides. For a war to be “necessary,” according to Ilyin,

  1. There must be “real evil,” not only suffering, but evil human will expressed in external deeds.
  2. Such externalized evil human will must be recognized on a deep level as a prerequisite for fighting it.
  3. Those fighting it need a “genuine love of good” and a repentant attitude in realizing the sinfulness of war on all sides.
  4. They also need a “strong will” that is not indifferent to evil.
  5. Force becomes necessary only when other practical measures such as psychological coercion fail. (The latter point doesn’t mean that force is a last resort, as in Western “just war” doctrine, only that it becomes needed after any alternative deemed practical is exhausted.)

Russian “necessary war” doctrine parallels Dostoevsky’s philosophy (seen in the courtroom aspects of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) of a common guilt for sin, which needs to be claimed through repentance, and which can not be resolved simply through abstract legal views and process. In that sense, for example, there is larger complicity of characters in the situation leading to the parricide of Fyodor Karamazov than just the actual murderer, in The Brothers Karamazov. To Ilyin, likewise, the spiritual causes of evil must be recognized within human souls and are deeper than formal causes. Fighting the external manifestations of evil while leaving the roots intact will not lead to success in spiritual warfare, in his view, and at the same time there are unintended consequences and collateral damage in addressing merely formal aspects of justice. In any case, God and faith are integral factors in calculating a necessary war, according to Ilyin, as well as in considering repentance for it.

All of this paradoxically makes for an approach to war that is perhaps both more extremely skeptical and more likely in select cases, than the secularized just war doctrine of the West. In any case, necessary-war doctrine literally leaves no justification for the Ukraine war on the basis of justice, even if deemed necessary. To Russian leaders, necessity in the Ukraine seemed driven by urgency to prevent or defuse the embedding of anti-Russian ideology militarily and culturally in what they see historically as a heartland of Russian cultural community, ancient Kievan-Rus. But that sense of necessity, even if not accepted, is in large part totally illegible to Western elites, because it involves literally no justification in Western intellectual terms, and because the West’s secular perspective today is fundamentally different from what Ilyin saw as the essential element of faith in addressing necessary war. That an encroaching culture of secular Western pan-sexualism, for example, would be seen as a national security threat, in effect, due to its perceived impact on family structure and faith, is inconceivable to Western leaders, for whom its promotion literally has become a national security goal in NATO documents, which also is inconceivable to Russian leadership today.

The allegedly anti-Christian bias of the European Union and NATO in their “woke-ism”; perceived interference in ecclesiastical structures of Orthodox churches in Ukraine by the West; NATO pressing into the Russian sphere of influence after its support for the overturning of the Ukrainian government in 2014; a melding of secularized state and business interests in globalization that Russian leaders perceive (very oddly for the West) as akin to neopagan corporate statism of Nazism, linked to allegedly occult elements in some Ukrainian fascist militia ideologies publicized in Russia — these all describe a claimed necessity to intervene militarily for Kremlin leaders. With this collection of concerns, which Western observers tend to see as propagandistic and inauthentic, comes also a factor of deepening distrust by Russian leaders and Western leaders generally of United States leadership. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson sought to describe the situation recently when, while citing his own opposition to the Russian invasion, he pointed out that there is no basis for psychological trust between Russia and the West today because of what he terms a “civil war” culturally fragmenting the West and making it optically an impossible partner in resolving crisis through negotiation.

How, Peterson asked, could someone in another culture more traditional in view of gender and “ethno-nationalism” (such as Russia and China) feel they could trust U.S. leadership when it is not clear that there is currently any coherent national identity, or any normative cultural ethics, in their view? Peterson gave as an example the spectacle this spring of widely publicized U.S. Congressional hearings in which the fractious question “What is a woman?” was unanswerable to a U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee, to the applause of many American elites. Given American elite cultural denial today of founding fathers, ideals, documents and also family life and faith, in a normative subversion of a deeply divided country, what is the ethical North Star guiding American policy and trustworthiness abroad, apart from assertion of a will to power in the name of a culturally revolutionary ideology that critics see as a state of perpetual uproar? Many suggest that if Donald Trump had been president, the Ukraine invasion would not have occurred, not because he is a paragon of virtue, but because the power drive for expansion of the West in Ukraine would have been lessened in his realpolitik, and the nature of American leadership more legible to Putin.

In all this, cancel culture in American elite institutions ironically has not served the U.S. well abroad. Recent analogy by China between U.S. policy on Taiwan and the strangling of George Floyd marked Beijing’s weaponizing of American ideological rhetoric to the world against itself. In line with how Chinese and Russian leaders (and many average people around the world) view American culture as collapsing in weakness, signified by the derogatory Chinese term baizuo for “crazy Left white people,” China’s use of George Floyd was tactical at best, given Beijing’s atrocious record of dealing with minorities, let alone its lack of purging of Mao given that he was arguably the uber-mass murderer of the last century.

Meanwhile the concept of “just war” in a postmodern West must navigate deconstruction of terms amid the loss of religious underpinning. Robinson notes that, by contrast with the Russian view of “necessary war,” the Western “just war” theory requires:

  1. A just cause.
  2. A just cause fought by legal authority.
  3. A just cause having a reasonable sense of success.
  4. Fighting should be a last resort after all alternatives (however impractical) are exhausted).
  5. Violence must be proportional to the goals, and civilians should not be targeted.

Does the seemingly arbitrary Western tendency toward labeling some wars as just-crusades enable both self-righteousness and a more impersonal and abstract sense of war (“fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian” through technological and financial aid)? Does it lead to hubris in intervening in Russia’s home neighborhood and risking huge casualties for others and nuclear confrontation?

Going back to the historical roots of theological difference between the West and East in old Christendom, the West tends to blame alleged “Caesaro-Papism” in the East for Russian brutal bellicosity. But the West has had its own problems with weaponizing a meld of ideology and culture historically. The way the West obliviously pushed out the boundaries of NATO physically, and of its global consumer “Metaverse” culturally and economically, can easily hide righteous disdain for other civilizational zones at the West’s own peril. As Henry Kissinger suggested in a recent Wall Street Journal interview (paraphrased by the reporter), Americans “tend to view negotiations…in missionary rather than psychological terms, seeking to convert or condemn their interlocutors rather than to penetrate their thinking.” Educational psychologist Jean Piaget wrote that appreciating the different views of others is basic to healthy cognitive development. But Western elites at large today seem to do better in rhetoric of diversity than in engagement with actual diverse perspectives, as seen at elite universities intolerant of non-conformist views.

From older Orthodox Christian theological and anthropological perspectives, the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed in the Latin West reflected and inspired a long-term cultural emphasis on self-assertion and individualism, through a melding of the Father and the Son, and perceived down-playing of the Holy Spirit in the formulation of the Trinity. This could feed a “crusader” mentality, too. Catholicism evidenced a kind of “Papo-Caesarism” in the Papal States and in the role of the papacy in a West left without a unifying empire, reflected in the “discovery doctrine” applied to conquest of the New World and mirrored in the Puritan ideal of Protestant theocracy under Oliver Cromwell, and perhaps echoed in historical American civil religion. Protestant states during the Reformation placed their churches under the control of state leaders as a precursor to the heyday of European imperialism. The melding of secular transcendent and corporate ideologies in modern globalization is viewed as neocolonialism in many countries still.

Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms in early modern Russia included using Protestant models for Church-state relations, which placed the Russian Orthodox Church’s organization administratively under the monarch. But the Orthodox ideal remained a Byzantine symphonia or balance of Church and State, a harmony and check-and-balance but not a merger of the two, in which an influential monastic presence played a key balancing influence, as in nineteenth-century Russia and earlier in Constantinople. This was symbolized by the double-headed eagle of Byzantium rather than the single-headed eagle of the American state. Ironically, given the Western critique of the Ukraine war, the “necessary war” doctrine seemed formed to deflect the kind of self-righteous crusades that bedeviled Western colonial and neocolonial powers. If no war is just, then all wars demand discernment and repentance.

All of this is not in any way to justify the war in Ukraine. In fact, as noted, “necessary war” doctrine on its own terms literally doesn’t seek to justify war in any sense of justice, given the sinful cost to even one innocent human being of any war, let along the many being killed in Ukraine. But from the Russian perspective of necessity, however much that can be disputed, this war seems to be perceived as just that — a “Hail Mary” pass against a neocolonial West messing with an historical heartland, militarily and culturally, and seemingly inexorably. The West sees its contravening intervention as a just war, as if in today’s secular terms an extension of the role of social justice warriors globally, in a longer cultural war against the perceived repressive remnants of different civilizational zones abroad, in Russia’s case against the only major power today (despite its serious flaws) that unlike Western nations claims itself to be an overtly traditionally Christian culture. America’s leading Mormon neoconservative politician, Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), famously has declared Russia (despite China) to be America’s greatest geopolitical enemy. Unlike Chinese and Islamic civilizations, Russia seems too familiar and too close to ignore. Unfortunately, that apparent familiarity breeds misunderstanding of civilizational difference. And the big practical glitch to a just-war approach in its case, as Kissinger points out, remains: This “other” is locked and loaded with nuclear weapons. Lord have mercy!


New Bible Study series on Genesis and Job


Starting Sunday Aug. 28 join us for a yearlong explanation of the origins of the Biblical tradition in the Christian Church.

Sunday afternoons 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Bucknell Barnes & Noble Cafe
No homework needed and no Bible, just come with an open and interested mind. We’re following the Orthodox Study Bible, which is available also as an ebook.

We’ll explore the Book of Genesis in light of the perspective of Church writers of the first millennium and its continued relevance today.

Then we’ll also read together the Book of Job, about a man from the era chronicled in the Book of Genesis, who suffered much and pondered much on Creation, and received wisdom from God.

Co-sponsored by the Bucknell Orthodox Christian community and Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg-Winfield. And join us for worship Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. at the Lewisburg Club, 131 Market St., alley entrance, and on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on campus (check here, and on message center, and the Church website for campus locations).

The Bible Study will be facilitated by Father Deacon Paul Siewers of St. John’s Church, who is adviser to the Bucknell Orthodox Christian Fellowship, and is Associate Professor of English at Bucknell, where he teaches the Bible as Literature course. In addition to holding a Ph.D. in English, he holds a diploma in Pastoral Theology, and specializes in pre-modern literature in his academic work.


The Cross of Witness and Summer Lent

Today we begin our journey to “Summer Pascha,” the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mary and Mother of our God, and our Mother in Christ in His Church. This is a bittersweet time, a time traditionally for blessing honey at the Feast today of the Procession of the Wood of the Cross, which also marks the Feast of our Savior and His Mother together at the start of the Fast, and of the Maccabean Martyrs whose witness comes at the end of the Orthodox Old Testament Scriptures. During the Dormition Fast, fruits traditionally are blessed on the Feast of Transfiguration, and flowers at the Dormition, two of the major feasts of the Church year at this season.

Hieromartyr Benjamin on trial before the atheist Bolsheviks, 1922
Soviet arrest photos of Hieromartyr Benjamin, 1922

At this time of witness of the Cross, on the eve of the fast yesterday, we also commemorated the New Hieromartyr Benjamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd, and his companions. They stood for the Truth that is Jesus Christ in the face of modern mass persecutions of atheism seeking to deny our Lord’s Incarnation in the spirit of anti-Christ. In 1922, Metropolitan Benjamin, before being condemned to death because of his stand for Truth, ended a defense of the others tried with him by telling those assembled in the large Soviet courtroom: “I do not know what sentence you will pass upon me—life or death—yet whatever your pronouncement, I will raise my eyes upward with the same reverence, make the sign of the Cross (here he crossed himself broadly) and say: Glory to Thee, O Lord God, for all things!” Thus Holy Hieromartyr Benjamin bore his Cross. May he pray to Christ our God for us that we may do so also, through the intercessions of the Most Holy Mother of God!

It was through our Lord’s Mother that Jesus Christ is related bodily to the Old Testament Prophets and Martyrs and the history of Israel, like that of the Maccabees, the Israel which became after His Incarnation the Church, of which we are part, the Body of Christ, with which we partake in the Holy Eucharist. And through Her in the Church He is related to Metropolitan Benjamin and the New Martyrs and all the saints, and unworthily to us even in our humble mission, and this sinful Deacon. In the Old Testament Israel is sometimes referred to as the Bride of Christ. In the New Testament the Church is referred to as the Bride with Christ as the Bridegroom. However, also, the Ever-Virgin Mary is referred to as the Bride of God as well as the Mother of God, in a mystery that references the Persons of the Trinity Who are Three in One God, of one Essence yet Unconfused.

The Theotokos after Jesus Christ’s bodily Ascension to be with the Father remained to help intercede for and guide the development of the early Church, and at her Dormition or falling-asleep the Apostles and leaders of the Church gathered with God’s help to be with her. In Orthodox tradition this is usually called the Dormition and not the Assumption as in Roman Catholicism, because Orthodox teaching does not include the Immaculate Conception, but holds that the Virgin Mary was conceived and born in regular human fashion, albeit miraculously to the aged Saints Joachim and Anna, and died as a regular human being in falling asleep, although her soul at her death according to Orthodox tradition was taken up into heaven by her Son our God, and her body then likewise was taken into heaven. So both her humanity and her holiness are emphasized in Orthodoxy, which considers her to be the greatest of saints, our intecessor, and the Mother of us all, who held in her womb the Creator of all, and who intercedes for us today as our Mother.

The time of the Dormition Fast includes fasting and ascetic struggle but also the joy of knowing the nature of her passing to be with her Son and our God as our intercessor and Mother in the Church. This is a time when often especially in the Greek tradition the Paraklesis service of intercession is sung to her, and we plan to adopt this practice for our Church and our building project, on Wednesdays during the Fast, at 7 p.m. on Aug. 17 and Aug. 24 on the Bucknell campus, more details to come soon.

We also commemorate today at the start of the Dormition the Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-giving Cross of the Lord, This tradition goes back to Byzantine times in Constantinople, when the procession was instituted at this time of the Church calendar year, the start of the fast, to help ask protection for the city and people from epidemics and pandemics. In the hymn of the Cross in ancient times it was sung: “O Lord save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, grant victory to the kings over the barbarians, and by the virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy Commonwealth.” Likewise just before the Trisagion chant during the Divine Liturgy, when the Deacon asks the Lord to save the pious and hearken unto us, originally that was a prayer to save the emperor. Clearly still today our prayers include our society, our commonwealth so to speak, the oikumene that the Church embraces and seeks to leaven with the faith in Jesus Christ and His Holy Gospel, which our mission seeks to help spread humbly and unworthily yet with the strength God gives us, here in the region of the Confluence of the Susquehanna Valley today. So we cross ourselves bodily often to seek His blessing and ward off demons and to protect ourselves and others in prayer. It is an expression of spiritual community, like today’s feast and the start of the fast.

Not far from us, at Holy Protection Monastery, for which our parish originally was named, there is a fresco on the ceiling of the entry hall of the Church’s tradition about the Wood of the Cross, which is included in our commemorations today. According to one traditional account, the Archangel Michael gave to Seth three seeds from the Tree of Knowledge to be placed beneath the tongue of his father Adam when he was buried. The Archangel told Seth that from these seeds would grow a tree that would bear fruit whereby Adam should be saved and live again. From them sprang a trinity of trees, cedar, cypress, and pine, united in one trunk. One old account said the woods symbolized the palm of victory, the cedar of incorruption, and the olive for royal and priestly unction. From this Moses cut his rod, an old account says, which was transplanted by David to a pool near Jerusalem, where under its branches he composed his Psalms. Later the virtue of the wood was communicated to the waters of the pool of Bethesda and was taken for the main beam of the Cross. The Greek Orthodox monastery of the Holy Cross just west of Jerusalem is on the site where the wood of the Cross grew according to tradition.

In all this the tree of the Cross in a living way symbolizes our connections to God and one another and the Church in Old Testament as well as New Testament times. The Cross, at which the Theotokos mourned and stood vigil for her Son, reminds us in ita form of how our Church and our lives are based vertically in our relation to God Who is also horizontally with us here on Earth, the Cross of the transcendent and the incarnational so to speak. The Orthodox Cross with its diagonal crossbar, the upward side indicating the Wise Thief, reminds us of our freedom to take up the Cross, and through God’s grace and with our ascetic struggle to follow Him. With us at the base of the Cross is His Mother. We honor her during this Fast, both bitter and sweet, the Summer Pascha, bittersweet like the Russian word at wedding feasts, “gorka,” meaning “bitter,” the bright sorrow we especially commemorate in this summer time of Orthodoxy. But then His Mother turns to Him and asks Him to turn the water into wine, and He cannot say no.