Volume 1, Nativity Special Issue

December 23, 2010

Volume 1, Special Issue of Wonder

Theme: Our Incarnate God

Articles:

Icon and Nativity, God Revealing Himself

By Deacon Dustin Lyon

“I was in Anguish and you Listened to me”

By Fr. Steven Voytovich

Incarnate Love

By Fr. John Breck

“Wise Man Seeks Lasting Relationship With Divine Creator; Will Follow Law”

By Mr. Jason Ketz

More information about the authors and contributors can be found here.

A special audio slideshow explaining the Nativity Icon can be found here.


Icon and Nativity, God Revealing Himself

December 23, 2010

By Dn. Dustin Lyon

Soon we will celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Many in our society see this as a season of “peace and goodwill towards men.” Others, who are a bit more religious, see this season as the birth of a savior and sing Christmas hymns such as “Away in a Manger” or “What Child Is This,” which emphasize the child-like quality of our Savior.   Despite all this, the Church puts in front of us an icon that constantly humbles me because it’s not an icon of a birth, but of a death.

The icon of the Nativity reveals the incarnation of Christ, to be sure, but it reveals a deeper insight into the incarnation.  This icon doesn’t just show us a baby who will one day preach, teach, and die, but rather this icon shows us that the baby born of Mary is already the crucified messiah.  For example, we often see that the baby Jesus is placed in a manger, but how many of us stop to realize that a manger is a feeding trough?  If this event took place today, perhaps the baby Jesus would be placed in a salad bar indicating that we must eat the bread of life to live – an obvious connection to the Eucharist.  Some icons depict Jesus not in a manger, but on an altar to be sacrificed.  This immediately draws our minds to the passion.

Icon of the Nativity of Christ

Whether the iconographer places Jesus in a manger or on an altar, Christ is always depicted in a cave.  Poetically this isn’t just a cave, but rather the empty tomb in which he lay after his crucifixion.  Jesus is depicted lying here wrapped in swaddling clothes, clothes that now become his burial shroud.

During Pascha we are presented with the icon of the empty tomb, from which Christ is resurrected.  If we consider empty and virgin to be parallel terms as well as resurrection and birth, then it is clear that the Nativity celebrates not just the birth of a child from a virgin womb, but the resurrection of Christ from the empty tomb.  Interestingly, both the virgin womb and the empty tomb are related to a man named Joseph – one Joseph being the husband of Mary and the other Joseph being the man from Arimathea.

This icon reorients our view of the Incarnation; because of it we don’t see the birth of Jesus as just a historical narrative, but rather, we see the Incarnation from the very start as a confession about the exalted and risen Lord.  In other words, the Incarnation we celebrate on Christmas is an interpretation; it is an understanding that Christ reveals the Father through the passion on the cross.  But this orientation isn’t just the perspective of the Nativity icon; it’s the perspective of all icons and is inherent even in the way an icon is made.

These past two summers I’ve been blessed to be able to take the iconography workshops offered at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  The time spent in these workshops has been some of the most rewarding and personally enriching time spent here at seminary.  I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve prayed as sincerely and humbly as I did while writing my icons.  What made these experiences such rewarding ones was the way in which the face of Christ was revealed through each step of the painting process.  It was as if the icon board was giving birth again to Christ.  In this way, I experienced the Incarnation of Christ firsthand.

Icon of Christ by the hand of the author

After prepping the board by sanding and applying gesso (a white primer), we carefully applied an outline drawing of Christ to our boards.  In this class everyone’s first icon is that of Christ, and this is planned very specifically.  There are several schools of thought behind what a person’s first icon should be, and my instructor fell into the school that believed one should first paint Christ because every icon, not matter what the subject matter is, always reveals Christ.  The martyrs incarnate Christ by imitating his death.  The evangelists, apostles, theologians, and church fathers incarnate Christ through their words.  When these people get depicted in an icon, we see Christ through the saints’ life or words.  By having my first icon be of Christ, the point is driven home that I am always to see Christ in every icon I paint.

After applying an outline drawing, my next step was to apply the gold leaf.  Having never worked with gold leaf before in my life, I did so very carefully and attentively.  Finally, I was ready to paint!

The first task in writing an icon is to paint the sold background colors.  For example, the red that Christ wears is painted a solid red.  The blue cloak is painted a solid blue.  His hair is painted a solid brown, and his skin is painted a dark green.  After I had done this, I was able to start painting the highlights and shadows.  Wow, what a difference they make! The image before me came more and more alive with each paint stroke I laid down.

The more alive the icon became, the more it hit me: I’m not painting Christ; rather, it was Christ who was revealing himself to me through this process.  Learning to paint an icon can be a frustrating process, but it can also be a very rewarding one.  I couldn’t have done it alone.  I needed the guidance and patience of my instructor, and the grace of God.  Seeing Christ reveal His image through this process made me realize that I wasn’t painting a picture of a man who lived 2,000 years ago.  I was painting the living God, who reveals Himself through the Incarnation for the life of the world, even in our time, and even to a simple student such as myself.

"Sweet-Kissing" Icon by the hand of the author


“I was in anguish and you listened to me”

December 23, 2010

by Fr. Steven Voytovich

The Beatitudes in Matthew 25 represent our final exam.  We never know when we might be responding to our Lord Himself when we see those who are sick, suffering, or otherwise in need.  Inherent in each response, though unspoken, is an attending posture toward the person who is in need, captured in the title of this piece.   This posture includes total attention, listening deeply, and relating to what is being shared through our own experiences of struggle.  If you look closely in the Gospel stories of Jesus meeting those who were sick and suffering, His attending posture is evident in his responses even though not always identified specifically. The following is a life example that has remained meaningful to me through many years.

J was a co-worker while I was in high school and college.  J grew up in a financially sound household where love was expressed by the purchase and giving of gifts.  In celebrating her college graduation, J’s parents gave her the gift of a cruise somewhere in Europe.  During that cruise, J glimpsed suffering that was at once foreign and devastating.  She was so overwhelmed by what she saw that she eventually attempted to take her life.  When I met her she had gotten out of the hospital, and was taking medication for depression.  Her desire was to get better and break the roller coaster cycle of re-hospitalization that she saw her fellow patients go through.

I grew up in a household where expressions of love were not regularly shared openly.  J’s journey to the brink of end-of-life spoke to me as a teenager grappling with questions of the meaning of life and my purpose in being alive.   I heard her desire to move forward in some respects as a call for help.  For many months I would visit her at her parents’ home, or at coffee shops, and as two young people we shared our life stories, our hopes, dreams, struggles, questions of faith, and attempts to grapple with each day’s steps on life’s journey.  I can say for myself that it was so meaningful to be listened to a deep level, and I would venture to say that J would agree.

Over time, the little employee work group J and I were part of grew to be close-knit.  We planned activities as a group, supported each other during difficult times.  J’s desire to be free of the roller coaster ride was slowly being realized.  Both J and I would probably say that our parents cared for us in ways they were able to.  What I gained from our sharing was an understanding, perhaps for the first-time outside my immediate family, was what it meant to care for someone, and what it “felt like” to be cared for by listening at such a deep level.

Ironically, though my parents suspected otherwise, our relationship never moved to a romantic level.  Each of us at one point or another perhaps imagined taking such a step, but never at the same time.   In my reflection, I would say this relationship had a deeply spiritual and healing nature.  Through our journey both of us were transformed.  I am thankful to God for bringing J and I together at such a critical time in both our lives.

J wound up marrying another of our little work group’s co-workers, and they have two lovely children.  I eventually found my way to becoming a caregiver in institutional and parish settings.   We continue to share a bond from these precious years, and my care-giving today continues to be influenced by this formative experience.  Throughout my life I celebrate the relational experiences not only of being able to listen to those I am called to minister to at a deep level, but likewise of being listened to at such a deep level to as being so intensely meaningful.  Especially in our age of web technology and “tweets,” such relational exchanges are rare and worthy of being treasured.

As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity Feast, let us take a moment to reflect on the word Incarnation.  Emmanuel, God with us; God takes on flesh, the eternal God is represented in human form. In his book On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius states the following regarding why we have been made in God’s likeness:  “Simply in order that through this gift of God-likeness in themselves they may be able to perceive the Image Absolute, that is the Word Himself, and through Him to apprehend the Father; which knowledge of their Maker is for mankind the only really happy and blessed life.” (p. 38)  Our experience of God’s likeness leads up ultimately back to God that we proclaim on the Nativity Feast as “Abba Father.” Gal.   Jesus calls upon “Abba Father” in Mark 14:36, in a moment of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This mystery of being created in God’s image offers us all the opportunity to intensely experience God’s presence with us personally in a similar way.  In addition, as we interact with one another in our daily lives, each fashioned in God’s image and likeness, we are called to participate in sharing this gift with others in our lives.  As we do so and are open to God’s presence, we can experience transformation and healing in the midst of moments of struggle and anguish, bringing us closer to God.   This is a significant gift of the Incarnation.   Let us commit ourselves to sharing this gift, especially during this most holy season, and all the seasons of our lives in Christ.


Incarnate Love

December 23, 2010

By Fr. John Breck

In this season of Christ’s Nativity, the title of Vigen Guroian’s fine collection of essays on ethical issues [Incarnate Love, University of Notre Dame Press, first ed. 1988] comes back to me with special poignancy. For the past several years I’ve spent a couple of weeks each spring in Romania, visiting theological faculties, monasteries and parish churches. I just returned from my first fall visit, with most of the ten days spent in Transylvania. More than any previous trip, that brief tour made me aware of the material deprivation so many Romanian people still face in this post-Communist era. It also made clear the depths of love and commitment with which many more privileged Romanians, together with a significant number of Americans and other foreigners, are attempting to meet the needs of the poor, the sick and the marginalized.

Poverty conditions in parts of Eastern Europe, as in the developing countries of Africa, are at times beyond the comprehension of most Americans. One evening the family who was hosting my wife and me drove me into downtown Cluj. There, in a small religious bookstore, I met a woman in her mid-seventies who earns her meager living translating articles and books for a local Orthodox publisher. Her income does not allow her the luxury of buying the heart medication she needs, although it is relatively inexpensive. Often she does not have enough to eat, simply because she has no money at all. The concept of “disposable income,” or even of a bank account, is incomprehensible to her. Yet she is a person of culture and quiet dignity (she apologized that her French was not as good as it used to be, then in that language she conversed fluently about her situation, but also about French and Romanian literature). She has a son on this side of the ocean, a computer programmer who used to send her money on occasion. His live-in girl friend, though, has forbidden him from doing so any longer, and the mother now receives nothing from him. If she doesn’t starve to death, it’s only because a few friends offer her what they can out of their own limited means. And hers is hardly an isolated case.

Other situations also tug at heart and conscience. During the Ceausescu era, government policy outlawed contraception as well as abortion – not for moral reasons, but to increase the population for political and military purposes. Now the country is rife with abandoned and abused children (every month an average of six children are abandoned in the single city of Cluj).

Small but significant efforts are underway, nevertheless, to address this well-publicized and still critical situation. Craig and Victoria Goodwin, for example, working in conjunction with the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in Florida (www.ocmc.org) have bought and renovated a large house in a poor section of Cluj. With teams of volunteer workers, they care for some half-dozen orphans less than two years of age. Under the eves they have two rooms set aside for pregnant women who are looking for the support necessary to allow them to bring their child to term rather than resort to an abortion. The home is spotless, very well equipped, and the atmosphere is warm, loving, and compassionate.

Little Angela, about 18 months old now, looked up at me with her dark eyes and timid smile. She is part Gypsy and so has little if any chance of being adopted in her native country. Those eyes followed me as I left the house, and we peered at each other through the window. If I could have put her in my pocket and brought her back with me, I would have. But there’s a moratorium on foreign adoptions, although, as always, there are ways around it. A couple in the States fell in love with Angela some time ago and are working hard to make her their own – and may God fulfill their desire! Meanwhile, the Goodwins are devoting themselves to her and to the others, with tender affection and extraordinary self-sacrifice (although they would not see it that way). I finally left the house and returned to our friend’s apartment. For hours that night I lay awake, marveling at little Angela’s gaze, but also at the work the Goodwins are doing. A handful of kids, that’s all. But it’s a gift of life to each of them.

Some thirty years ago I was hunched, terrified, in the back seat of an old French DS, tearing down the autoroute at 180 km. per hour. The driver was a hotshot young businessman, who nevertheless lived his Catholic faith with seriousness and a certain sense of joy. We just learned that today he is in Romania, working with orphans.

A close friend in France, who many years ago became a nun in the Romanian archdiocese, is making plans with others to create an orphanage in Moldova. Once it’s completed, they will be welcoming several hundred children and providing them with everything from medical care and education to a quality of “family” love most of them otherwise would never know.

And so it goes. Simple people like ourselves, with no other agenda than to “be Christ” to the poor, the abandoned, the “rejects” of contemporary society. And just as many stories, of course, could be told of people in this country who work to improve living conditions, education, and medical care for those in poverty, and who do so with “incarnate love.” That is love which has taken flesh. It is love like the love of Jesus, who spoke a word or touched a wound, and brought healing.

In this Christmas time, we can only give thanks to God for the gift of that love, as Jesus Himself incarnated it, and as it becomes incarnate through the lives of all those who make of their existence something of a reverse tithe. They live on ten percent of their resources and offer the rest to the less privileged. May God bless their efforts and strengthen their dedication. May He allow them to touch others with the same healing power He conveyed to Peter’s mother-in-law, to the woman with the issue of blood, and to Jairus’s deceased daughter. And may He touch our own hearts as well, that we might share in those good works, that we might in our own lives and activity give flesh to that love that knows no bounds.

This article was originally published as a “Life in Christ” article on oca.org in December 2003.


“Wise Man Seeks Lasting Relationship with Divine Creator; Will Follow Law”

December 23, 2010

By Jason Ketz

“My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!” (Gal 4:19)

As we draw near to the annual celebration of our Lord’s Nativity according to the flesh, I find myself contemplating the incarnation in different ways.  Certainly the incarnation of the Crucified One is a divine mystery which we understand in terms of our theological definitions.  But how did the Apostle Paul understand our Incarnate Lord that he was able to say this to the Galatians?  As it happened, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was unexpected, all the more so as we apply doctrinal definitions backward into the New Testament writings.  And the Holy Spirit has a clear and active role in a person’s ability to confess Jesus as Lord, but how does any human arrive at this point?  The disciples had extensive preparation, and were still amazed, so how was Paul able to understand on any level his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-20) such that he could proclaim Jesus as the Son of God even before his sojourn in the desert (cf. Gal 1:16-2:2)?  Are there visible antecedents to the ‘fullness of time’ (cf. Eph 1:10) in which we now stand, and how did they extend from God’s chosen people Israel to the Gentiles, such that we can all agree that “The Lord is One” (Deut 6:4; Mk 12:29)?

Following the lead of Jesus himself (Lk 24:25-33, 44-49), Christians of every generation have searched the scriptures as Paul did, to understand Christ.  On a parallel line, I would like to very briefly consider the development of humanity such that we are able to accept the incarnation.  The following is an overview of a subtle but crucial shift in Jewish theology which occurred perhaps two hundred years before the Crucifixion, and which is essentially devoid of messianic expectations, but addresses a central issue of humanity’s desire to know God.  This seems to be a major instance of preparation of humanity for the reception of the gospel.  Interestingly enough, the author of the work even bears the name Jesus!

The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira[1] seems at first glance to be a restatement of traditional Jewish wisdom found in Proverbs, Job or Ecclesiastes.  And this Wisdom literature of the Old Testament has two general characteristics which a reader would do well to remember.  First, the underlying themes of the texts are very old.  Second (and related to their age), they are not especially Jewish in origin, but a collection of well-known proverbs from around the ancient Near East which are laced with Jewish themes to make them acceptable.[2] So when Ben Sira begins to reiterate these to a new audience, one wonders if he is simply trying to demonstrate compatibility between Judaism and the Hellenism of the day.[3] This would seem to hold true with his treatment of “Wisdom” as both a human virtue and as the personified primary creation of God, which Philo will two hundred years later combine with Platonism and call God’s logos.  Ben Sirach’s highest identity of divine Wisdom is a hymn she sings of herself:

“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,

and covered the earth like a mist.

I dwelt in high places,

and my throne was in the pillar of cloud.

Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven

and have walked in the depths of the abyss.

In the waves of the sea, in the whole earth

and in every people and nation

I have gotten a possession” (24:3-6).

A Christian scholar might jump to see Trinitarian theology in the making, but Ben Sira is not even considering a messiah (whether Davidic, priestly or otherwise), let alone the hypostases of the Godhead in his treatise.  Rather, he makes a contribution which is equally profound.  In his expectedly secular treatise on wisdom, he proclaims that following the Law (Torah) is the first and most important act of wisdom (19:20; 15:1).  This is a complete transformation of the ancient wisdom texts (cf Prov 4:7).  In Proverbs, generically divine Wisdom is made to look Jewish, but Ben Sira sees Jewish Wisdom as having been bestowed on all of humanity!  The wisdom within created man then seeks out wisdom as his bride (15:2; 24:19-22), and comes to know God through his primary work, eternal Wisdom (1:4), who in her fullness sought out Israel as her dwelling place in humanity (24:8-12).  The Law which has been revealed fully to the people of Israel is the same law which governs all of creation (24:23-29).

For Ben Sira, and later for Philo, this becomes the promise of the covenant between God and his people.  Israel is still first-born, but this covenant is somehow open to all of humanity.  Man’s divine vocation is to bring oneself into communion with the Lord by recognizing the Lord’s image and likeness within oneself and by pursuing it outside oneself (6:18-31).   Wisdom is immortal, thus as much as wisdom is expressed within the human, the person too can attain (a non-bodily) immortality.  As such, this might be loosely described as incarnational theology[4] before the Incarnation!

The Law which Ben Sira and Philo both envision was one of relationships.  Each sage will uphold the classic practices of Jewish Law,[5] but Ben Sira prioritizes social relationships throughout his work.  One’s standing with his family, his wife, his neighbor, and the impoverished are particularly important places in which God’s law can be realized, i.e., through which wisdom can be expressed and the Lord can be encountered.  Philo’s view is less social, but equally participatory in creation: through Philosophy.[6]

Ben Sira’s theology is also remarkably doxological.  He sees this pursuit of re-union (or communion) with the Lord to be a function and display of glory, and the ultimate form of worship offered by the crown jewel of creation: man.  An idea with which Ben Sira only flirts (17:1-24; cf his hymns of creation [42:15-43:33], and the ancestors [44:1-50:24]) but which Philo develops remarkably is that this man is a microcosm of all of creation, and as the only bearer of the seal of the logos of God, the only true citizen of the created cosmos.[7] It is this uniqueness of humanity which allows us to return to our place of departure.

Obviously, the incarnation of our Crucified Lord would change everything, revealing the glory of the flesh, and a more complete model of theosis than either Ben Sira’s or Philo’s theology would permit, seeing as they did the eternal Wisdom-Logos existing in a different realm, only through likeness entering into creation, chiefly through the human rational intellect.  The self-emptying love displayed through Jesus’ willing death on the cross shows that it is no longer outside and above this created order that God is to be met, but entirely within it.  We no longer must travel contemplatively or ecstatically through these realms of divine order,[8] but only just far enough outside the comfortable and seemingly self-fulfilling universe of our own self, to see in another human being the divine seal of God’s glory; a complementary microcosm of all of the Lord’s creation.  And at that very moment, we can accept Jesus’ particular incarnation while recognizing the very sublime idea that through our very reception of this good news, the Christ can and must be formed within each of us.

So while we join the Magi on the pilgrimage to Bethlehem, let us not fail to marvel in the glory of creation which our Creator wills to save.  And let each of us willingly participate in the saving process, so that the labor of the Apostle ends in a glorious birth, both in a small town in Judea and in the Bethlehem of our souls.


[1] Also known as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, this is one of the books which did not make the final cut for either the Jewish or Protestant Canons.  As such, most bibles, including the Oxford Annotated RSV (1977) with which I am working, place this text among the Apocrypha.

[2] The texts function fine in, and are an accepted part of the Jewish scriptures, but the point is that they predate them.  Consider the pantheon in Job, or the partitioned structure of Proverbs, in which Jewish theology has been overlaid on Egyptian moral maxims (esp Book III) and then accredited to King Solomon.

[3] At this point, I must generally refer to two scholars to whose work I am indebted: John J Collins, Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age (Louisville: WJK, 1997); and Leo Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History (Louisville: WJK, 2007).

[4] “a religion in which man’s approach to God is through the physical world rather than by escape from it.” Maurice Wiles, “Christianity without Incarnation” in The Myth of God Incarnate. John Hick, ed.  (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).

[5] Typically summarized in Second Temple literature by Sabbath observance, circumcision and dietary laws.

[6] Philo, On the Creation of the Cosmos, David T Runia, tr. (Leiden: Brill, 2001), §77.

[7] Philo, On the Creation §3, 82, 143.

[8] Philo, On the Creation, §69-71.  This theology has a place in Orthodoxy, as seen in Maximus the Confessor’s Ambiguum 41 and other works of mystical theology.  But this only functions in tandem with the very real and participatory experience of the Eucharist.


Volume 1 Nativity Special, Authors and Contributors

December 23, 2010

Deacon Dustin Lyon is currently a third year seminarian and attached to Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where he is also the student sacristan. He holds a MA in Art History and Archaeology from the University of Missouri.

Archpriest Steven Voytovich is the Director of the Department of Institutional Chaplaincies for the Orthodox Church in America. He holds M.A., M.Div., and D.Min degrees from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He works in institutional settings training hospital and institutional chaplains. He is attached to Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, Connecticut.

Archpriest John Breck is on the faculty of St. Sergius Institute in Paris, France. He holds an M.Div from Yale University and a Theological Doctorate from Ruprecht-Karl University in Germany. He writes a column for the website of the Orthodox Church in America entitled “Life in Christ” from which this article was taken.

Jason Ketz is a second year M.Div student at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.  He holds a B.S. in Microbiology, and worked as the Quality Manager at a printing company for several years in his home town of Minneapolis, before answering a long-standing call to theological studies and, God-willing, pastoral ministry.  He and his wife Elizabeth are currently balancing his studies, her career, and the constant demands of raising two wonderful young children.  His home parish is St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis.


Volume 1 Number 6

December 12, 2010

Volume 1 Number 6 of Wonder

Theme: Asceticism and Discipleship

Articles:

The Ascetical Life

by Fr. Robert Arida

The Church is our Mother

by Mr. William Kopcha

Remember Your Leaders

by Mr. Andrew Boyd

Asceticism and the Military Environment

By. Fr. Sean Levine

More information about these authors and contributors may be found here.


The Ascetical Life

December 12, 2010

by Fr. Robert Arida

The Ascetical Life

I. Divine and Human Love

The ascetical life is a response to divine love.  It is an expression of human love driven by an unquenchable desire to abide in the embrace of the triune and tri-personal God. The ascetical life has its beginning and end in God.  God who is triune and tri-personal willingly extends his life beyond himself seeking union and communion with the one he creates in his image and likeness. This going beyond or outside of divinity – this standing outside (ἔκστασις) of the tri-personal relationships of Trinitarian life is an expression of divine love supremely expressed in the incarnation of the Logos. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins… We love, because he (God) loved us first.” (1John 4:9-10,19)

Both divine and human love are inexhaustible. However, there is one great difference. God is forever faithful to his beloved even when the beloved seeks the embrace of another lover. Human love, on the other hand, intended by God to be forever faithful and therefore opened to the other, has turned in on itself. Self –love can only establish phantom-like relationships that are manipulative and abusive. Unless transformed, these pseudo relationships have the potential to destroy all those entrapped by this dark love.

The ascetic is the one who struggles against self-love and therefore self-preservation.  This struggle leads to an existential death and resurrection that is driven by an ongoing metanoia (μετάνοια) and rebirth of the person. Paul Evdokimov (The Struggle With God) writes: “The two terms (μετάνοια and birth) express clearly that profound modification of the human being and makes its entrance into the spiritual world, whose principles are the opposite of the world.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that Christianity and therefore asceticism is counter-cultural. The way of the Lord and therefore our lives as Christians in and for the world is simultaneously contra mundi.

The monastic movement of the fourth century was a reminder to the Church that it proclaimed a kingdom not of this world i.e. not allied with Caesar.  The retreat into the desert was a retreat from what was understood as a compromise of the Gospel.

II. Asceticism and Baptism: The Social Responsibility of the Ascetic

It should be stressed that ascetical life – because it is the life of the Gospel – cannot be divorced from Baptism. Baptism is the response to God’s overture of love. It is a break from the old and entrance into the new.  It is initiation into the Kingdom not of this world that sojourns in the world for its life, salvation, transfiguration and deification.

At baptism the newly illumined is tonsured.  All Christians are tonsured – all Christians are called to be living offerings to the living God.  The baptismal tonsure is the pledge of giving oneself to the new life in Christ that is sustained by ongoing struggle nurtured by the Holy Spirit.  “Put on the armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”(Eph. 6:11)  Because μετάνοια is a process of dying to the old self, it is also a rising into new life.  But what is this new life?

Christian asceticism is not dualistic. It does not reject the physical or material because it is perceived as inherently evil.  Christian asceticism is not the polarization of the spiritual and material.  On the contrary, Christian asceticism is the harmonization of the spiritual and material.  The Kingdom that is to come, the Kingdom already among us is comprised of the old being transformed into the new: “And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) We do not read, “I make new things.”  God’s creation is inherently good.  The ascetic is the one who truly realizes and experiences this fundamental reality.  As the one who struggles to grow in his baptismal vocation i.e. to grow as a member of Christ’s body, the ascetic yearns for participation in the divine life.  At the same time, the ascetic, as the one who loves the other, seeks to draw every one and every thing into the life of the triune and tri-personal God.  The ascetic is the one who discovers daily not only his personal sin but also his divine calling to become God by grace – “God became man so man might become God.”

The re-ordering or re-harmonization of the person is a testament to the ascetic’s quest for a life integrated in God and creation.  Self-love as the foundation of the ancestral sin and as the engine of personal sin is fought on the front of ecstatic love (ἔρως) – a love which reaches out towards the other and which binds every fiber of the human person into a harmonious and sanctified whole.

Ἔρως is the love that drives the ascetic outside of himself and into the embrace of Christ. Ἔρως is the total emptying of self in order to be in communion with the other. Ἔρως is a kenotic love that fills the self with the other.  It is a love seeking to aid and serve the other. Ἔρως is love that compels the ascetic to suffer with and for the other.  The model for this “erotic” or “kenotic” love is Christ himself.  “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:4-8)

Erotic love, because it is self-emptying, will ultimately lead the ascetic to die for the other.  Once the love for God and the other begins to emerge from a life no longer devoted to selfishness, the resurrected person – the regenerated person – is manifested. Without love for the other, the ascetic continues to live a false life i.e. a life of hypocrisy in which he acts out a role that has no moorings in the life and light of Christ. “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still.  He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling.  But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” (1 Jn. 2:9-11) and “If any one says, ‘I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar…” (4:20)

In the Ladder of St. John of Sinai (570?-649?) the reader is offered a glimpse of the redeeming power of ἔρως.  “I have seen impure souls raving madly about physical love (ἔρωτας σωμάτων); but making their experience of carnal love a reason for repentance, they transferred the same love to the Lord; and overcoming all fear, they spurred themselves insatiably into the love of God (eiÎv ἀγάπην θεού).  That is why the Lord does not say of that chaste harlot – ‘Because she feared; but ‘Because she loved much (ἀγάπησε πολύ) and could easily drive away love by love (ἔρωτι ἔρωτα διακρούσασθαι). (Step 5)

St. Isaac the Syrian (latter part of the 7th century) stresses that the true ascetic, by coming to know God by responding to divine love also comes to know himself.  As the ascetic comes to know God and himself he comes to also realize that all of nature is fragmented and polarized. “With this knowledge are connected a perpetual stabbing of the heart; distress and grief…” (Homily XLIV) Self-love has brought internal personal chaos which brings chaos to all of creation.  Estrangement from God – due to the poison of sin and mortality – has caused the human person and all of creation to assume a false identity.

Overcoming this false identity is possible though love. Wounded by God’s love, the ascetic’s true love – ἔρως – begins to form within the process of repentance.  From repentance comes the kenotic love that simultaneously causes the ascetic to weep and rejoice.  He weeps because he recognizes himself as the very cause of nature’s fragmentation and polarization.  Yet he rejoices knowing that the Divine Eros manifested in the economy of the Son and Holy Spirit has overcome all division.  St. Paul expresses the overcoming of division and polarization in his letter to the Galatians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:27-28) Saint Maximus the Confessor (7th c.) further develops this fundamental reality of the new creation revealed in and through Christ.  All divisions resulting from sin are healed The created/uncreated; intelligible/tangible; heaven/earth; paradise/universe; male/female are restored to a unity in diversity and diversity in unity proclaimed, revealed and lived within the Church as the new creation.

The new creation is built on the kenotic love of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (Jn. 3:16) For St. Isaac the Syrian, the ascetic is precisely the one who practices and continues the kenotic love of God in and through his own person.  In his Discourse LXXIV he speaks of the one who is merciful and, by extension, as the one who reflects the unbounded love of the Trinity upon which the Church is built: “What is a merciful heart? The heart’s burning for all creation, for human beings, for birds and animals, and for demons, and everything there is.  At the recollection of them and at the sight of them his eyes gush forth with tears owing to the force of the compassion which constrains his heart, so that, as a result of its abundant sense of mercy, the heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or examine any harm or small suffering of anything in creation. For this reason he offers up prayer with tears at all times, even for irrational animals, and for the enemies of truth, and for those who harm him, for their preservation and being forgiven. As a result of the immense compassion infused in his heart without measure – like God’s – he even does this for reptiles.[1]

Kenotic love overcomes all divisions.  For the one who loves as God loves there is the desire to draw all into the embrace of Christ where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” (Gal.3:28)

In his book entitled My Missions In Siberia (published in 1917), Archimandrite Spiridon recounts the words of a holy peasant named Simeon: “For me, sufferings are not an object of fear. What does make me afraid is that God might deprive sinners of his grace… I am ready to pray to God not only for all Christians but also for those who have not been baptized. On all of them I have such pity! …on those who have been hanged and on those who have committed suicide… on all who have died I take pity, and finally even on the devil I take pity. That is what I feel in my heart…”[2]

III. Love and Death

We have looked at asceticism through the lens of “restored love.”  Here is where we need to understand “restored love” in relationship to death – death to the fallen self and to the fallen creation. Without death there can be no resurrection. It has been stressed that Baptism provides the context for “death and resurrection.” From this context, which initiates the newly illumined into the living body of Christ – the Church – a creative tension between the inaugurated Kingdom and the world emerges.

Christ says to his disciples: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Lk. 9:23 and parallels) The word “deny” is a translation based on the Greek verb ἀπαρνέομαι.  This verb is rich in meaning and can also be translated as “to disown” which in turn helps to clarify what is meant by the denying oneself.  Often, “to deny oneself” is understood as the way towards overcoming self-indulgence.

Much more than overcoming self-indulgence, the disowning of the self is a re-awakening of the self towards the other.  St. Maria Skobtsova (+1945) poignantly stresses that the ascetical life is not a private enterprise. Its social context and thrust always includes the other. In her essay, The Second Gospel Commandment, she stresses that the ascetic’s true love for God is lived out in relationship to how love is shown for the neighbor.  “The Orthodox man only fulfills the precepts of his faith when he takes them as a certain bi-une commandment of love for God and love for one’s neighbor.” Tragically, she points out the abandoning of this commandment in the context of Orthodox life and spirituality. “There occur, of course, whole epochs of deviation from the right attitude toward this bi-unity. And it is especially characteristic of periods of catastrophe and general instability, when man in his pusillanimity tries to hide, to take cover, and not deal with anyone who belongs to this tottering world.  It seems to him that if he remembers God alone, and stands before Him in his soul in order to save it, he will thereby be delivered from all calamity and remain clean in a time of universal defilement. Such a man should tirelessly repeat to himself the words of St. John the Theologian about hypocrites who say they love God without loving man [1 Jn. 4:20]. How can they love God, whom they do not see, and hate their brother, who is near them? For the fulfillment of love for one’s neighbor, Christ demanded that we lay down our soul for our friends. Here there is no sense in paraphrasing this demand and saying that it has to do not with the soul but with life, because when the apostle Paul says, about the fulfilling of Christ’s demand, that he could wish he were separated from Christ, so long as he could see his brothers saved [Rom. 9:3] – it is clear that he is speaking of the state of his soul, and not only his life.”[3]

Disowning the self requires a reorientation of the mind and will which entails a type of death and resurrection.  St. Paul clearly and powerfully expresses this liberation of the self: “ But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.  For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Gal.6:14-15)

The putting to death of the mind and will owned and enslaved by the self requires the ascetic to leave the world in order to return to the world and to offer it back to God.  Leaving the world and therefore dying to the world begins with the mind’s ascent to God.

For St. Maximus the Confessor the one seeking union with God begins with the ascent (ἀνάβασις) of the mind (νούς) through contemplation (θεώρία). Contemplation strives to free the mind from the senses and the negative passions. It enables the mind to undergo a liberation – death – in which it leaves behind all that is fallen. Contemplation is an ascent of the mind beyond the senses and the material.  Yet, this ascent is not an abandoning of the world. On the contrary, the ascent of the mind eventually allows the ascetic to understand that all creation belongs to the Logos of God. The ἀνάβασις of the mind and its passing through or going beyond the created draws the person into a communal relationship with God enabling the ascetic to return to the world with a restored vision and renewed will. The renewed vision and renewed will manifest themselves in the virtues which express the ascetic’s relationship to the one who is the Truth. “Virtue exists for truth: but truth does not exist for virtue.” (Amb. P.G. 90, 369A)

The ascetic’s life – his ἀνάβασις to God – is a movement of the mind away from all created existence. St. Gregory the Theologian in praise of St. Athanasius the Great (Sermon 21) states: “If therefore it happens to anyone that, passing by means of reason and contemplation through matter and the fleshly, whether called cloud or veil, to become assimilated to God and united to the most pure light, so far as is permitted to human nature, this person is blessed by his ascent from here and his deification there, which is granted to those who genuinely live the philosophical life and transcend the material dyad through the unity of the mind perceives in the Trinity.”

Commenting on this part of St. Gregory’s sermon, St. Maximus writes: “Why does the teacher say that the flesh is a cloud and a veil? He knows that every human mind has gone astray and lost its natural motion, so that its motion is determined by passion and sense and things perceived by the senses, and it cannot be moved anywhere else as its natural motion towards God has completely atrophied. He therefore divides the flesh into passion and sense, designating these two parts of the ensouled flesh cloud and veil. For the cloud is the fleshly passion darkening the pilot of the soul, and the veil is the deceit of the senses, causing the soul to be overcome by the appearance of things perceived by the senses, and blocking the passage to intelligible reality, through which it is overcome by forgetfulness of natural goodness and turns all its energy to sensible things and also discovers in this way angry passions, desires and unseemly pleasures.”[4]

The ascetic ascends from the world  – leaves the world – by abandoning his disordered passions ruled by the mind and senses which have forgotten or turned away form God. Leaving behind the created which has become obscured and abused by a mind and will turned in on itself the transformation of the person begins. The ordeal of turning the mind toward God (repentance) – the struggle to disown the self – makes the ascetic a slave of righteousness and no longer a slave of sin. (cf. Rom. 6:18) As a slave of righteousness the ascetic acquires his freedom in Christ and his responsibility for the other.

For St. Maximus, freedom is a condition of the natural will (θέλημα φυσικόν) which is to be in harmony with the divine will. This harmony is a result of a dynamic in which all the components or properties of the human person are in union with God. Because of this union, human freedom ultimately transcends choice since choice implies hesitation, preference, confusion and doubt. Yet, though the human person possesses the natural will it underwent a fall – a collapse derived by a turning away from God. In other terms, once the human will is severed from the divine will there ensues a total collapse of the person which impacts all of creation. This collapse of the person gives way to sin, confusion, ignorance and darkness.  At times the fallen will is referred to by St. Maximus as the gnomic will (θέλημα γνωμικόν).  Paradoxically, for St. Maximus the natural will is capable of turning away from God and confines itself in the limitations of choice.

In the ascent to God, the ascetic chooses (again) to be a slave of righteousness which St. Paul describes as being totally possessed by Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” (Gal. 2:20)

Being possessed by Christ does not obliterate one’s personhood. When the ascetic is possessed by Christ he recovers his true identity sustained and developed by and through the Holy Spirit. By resurrecting his mind, will, heart, energy, body the ascetic is led by the Spirit and dwells in the Spirit. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.” (Rom. 8:5-6)[5]

IV. The Ascetic as a Eucharistic Being

The ascetic is a Eucharistic being. In the context of the Liturgy the ascetic feasts on the spoken and Eucharistic words of Christ. Drawn to the Lord ’s Table, the ascetic is the true Gnostic who “sees” with the eyes of faith the first fruits of the restored creation.  As a co-celebrant of the New Covenant, the ascetic participates in the inaugurated Kingdom of God where every one and every thing is restored to its proper identity in relationship to the incarnate Logos. The reasonable worship (λογική λατρεία) confirms and affirms for the ascetic that his personal death in baptism is indeed initiation into the resurrection of new and eternal life. This new and eternal life is the unending Pentecost in which the divine Spirit binds and gathers the body of Christians transforming them into the living body of Christ.

As an eschatological event, the Eucharist is a pre-figuration of deified existence to which all of created existence is called. As a participant in this existence, the ascetic abides in this world but as one who is of the world to come. Here and now the ascetic, compelled by “kenotic eros,” seeks to bring all that is fallen to the very source of healing and transfiguration. The vision of the New Jerusalem described by St. John is a liturgical – even a Eucharistic – description of the Kingdom breaking into time and space where the old becomes new: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev.21:1-4)

The ascetic lives this reality, proclaims this reality and offers this reality to all.

© 2010 Father Robert M. Arida


[1] The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, trans. Sebastian Brock, Cistercian Pub., Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1987, p. 251. Regarding the reference to reptiles, Brock states the following: “Isaac singles out reptiles since, according to Zoroastrian belief, they are part of the evil creation of Ahriman.” (p. 300) Hence, for St. Isaac there is nothing created that is inherently evil. There is no duality in the created order.

[2] Quoted by Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 302

[3] Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, Orbis Books, 2003, p.48

[4]Translated by Andrew Louth in his Maximus the Confessor, University of Durham, 1996, pp. 96-97,99

[5] A note on the word flesh: καὶ ό λόγος σάρχ ἐγένετο… Flesh acquires its negative connotation when it becomes and idol. Likewise the term desire (ἐπιθυμία) is used negatively when the mind no longer sees a person as belonging to God.  Consequently desire, as it is related to possessing and using the flesh as an object, devolves into a passion. Tragically, the one who desires and the one desired both lose their identity as persons. In the Gospel according to St. Luke, our Lord says to his disciples: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer… (ἐπιθυμίᾳ ἐπεθύμησα τοῦτο τὸ πάσχα φαγεῖν μεθ’ ὑμῶν πρὸ τοῦ με παθεῖν. 22:15)  Here Jesus seeks communion with the disciples and therefore his desire does not objectify or rob his followers their personhood.


The Church is our Mother

December 12, 2010

By Mr. William Kopcha

The priest who gave the homily at my grandfather’s funeral was a man who pulled no punches.  I had once, several years before, heard him speak at the funeral of a more distant relative; his opening words were, “Those who knew her in life knew that she was a difficult person to get along with…”  And, maybe not so surprisingly, nobody got mad.  Not a brow was furrowed, not an eyebrow raised, not any more than a shrug and a resigned sigh and nod, because, simply put – it was true.  Anyone there who had the potential to get flustered by this statement also knew that this was not the priest’s opinion – it was a fact. So, naturally, I was especially moved when this same priest said of my grandfather,

He was like Dove soap – 99.998% pure.  Here was a man who understood that, in the words of St. Cyprian of Carthage, ‘unless you have the Church as your mother, you cannot have God as your Father.’ … And because of this,everything for him was simple.

Truer words could not have been said, and I’m fairly certain that I could see the cheeks of “Grandpa-Deacon” get still rosier beneath the foundation and other funeral-parlor fakery.  And, following a send-off that was described as being like midnight on Pascha (an analogy that I extend with Holy Week in his last days), not a few hours after the fact, I was back at the University, plunged once again via total immersion in its own unique atmosphere with its own unique cares.

Specifically, we were in the middle of final exams, a time which underscores the transient nature of the University environment like no other – people giving one last-ditch effort to save their semesters before bursting, or perhaps falling, into freedom, sitting at home on the couch eating pretzels and watching every episode of 30 Rock on Hulu.  Anyone who has ever had a job or internship on campus during the summer can attest to this transience, seeing the once-crowded streets deserted, the dorms silent and empty, and, every once in a while, a stray grad student stumbling out of the lab or library and blinking once or twice at this thing called “the sun” before retreating.  In what amounts to a giant brick shanty-town, where, as a friend reminded me, every campus organization is “only four years away from extinction,” the idea of “community” is hard to come by.  Everything is uncertain, everything is in flux, and, though we may stitch together networks of friends and companions, we are all essentially sent out alone from “home” to a temporary outpost.  That is difficult.

I was particularly struck this year by the Gospel account of the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac.  Everyone else whom Christ calls or who asks to follow Christ has some sort of a hang-up – they’ve bought land that they need to till, they’ve married a wife that they need to attend to, their father just died and they need to bury him.  Christ tells all of them to forget about it and come anyway, even going so far as to say, “Let the dead bury their own dead” – all except this man.  The only one who has no reservations about following Christ, this man from whom Christ expelled “many demons,” is told “no.”  He begs Christ for a blessing to follow him, and Christ says “no,” telling the man instead to depart into a place where he has most likely been feared and rejected for years on account of his illness and can no longer call “home.” This makes the man, in some sense, the first true apostolos, the first one “sent from” the Master. He is  sent out, alone, into a place that is not his community.  Given my recent perceptions of the University, maybe it is not so surprising that this story resonated with me so strongly.

Healing of the man possessed

And really, where do we encounter the Master?  Every Christian since the original Twelve has been a disciple of a disciple and simultaneously of the same Master their masters serve.  I am, in a sense, therefore a disciple of my grandfather and, by extension, first encountered the One Master in this one master, whose exemplary discipleship was rooted in his understanding of “the Church as his mother” – the Church, which is simultaneously the body of disciples showing you how to be a disciple and the body of disciples forming a community to bolster you in that effort.

A certain aspect of being a disciple and having the Church as your mother is, apparently, simply doing those things that She tells you are good for you.  My own mother told me to eat chicken soup when I’m sick, so I do.  And it works.  I don’t know why, but it just does.  Likewise, my grandfather went above and beyond what many would call a “reasonable effort” to make it to every Church service possible, became a frequent communicant when instructed to do so, and fasted when he was told to fast, right down to the substitution of non-dairy creamer for milk in his now-Lenten cereal (which, despite my “enlightened” misgivings about the letter vs. the spirit of the law does show some dedication).  And he loved it, not for the sake of any personal gratification, but simply because this is how life was “supposed to be.”  On top of that, in exchange for all the care bestowed upon him by the Church, he showered Her with all of the care that he could muster, fixing and cleaning what needed to be fixed and cleaned, managing what needed to be managed, filling all of her needs when they arose, including his great loves, choir-directing and the diaconate.  Whatever She needed, he provided.  It is probably no accident that this man who so completely absorbed every aspect of the Church’s mothering also took the most profound joy in the simplest parts of everyday life.

His most profound joy by far, though, was people.  My grandmother now talks about how he always loved people, how he would talk to all the cashiers in the department stores he took her to, and especially how he lived for big church gatherings – for the assembly of his brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow disciples of the Church.  Whether or not he realized it, as much as he loved this community, he also built this community.  At his funeral, people came from, in some cases, hundreds of miles away simply because he had touched their lives in some way and in so doing had glued them into the network of the Church – one that he had supported and encouraged in their youth, another that he had driven an hour to deliver a home-cooked dinner to in a time of distress, and countless others that he had made laugh or just shown a genuine interest in their lives.  Fast as he might have fasted and direct as he might have directed, this was undoubtedly his greatest love and life’s work – if you will, his greatest podvig or ascesis – his over-arching act of asceticism, of discipline and sacrifice, of overcoming personal boundaries and inhibitions, that cemented the discipleship of so many and solidified the foundation of a community.

How, then, can we maintain our discipleship as ones who are “sent out” from our own communities, like this Gerasene Demoniac, to new horizons?  In the absence of a community, simple put – we can’t.  That’s what makes existence at the University at once an exciting challenge and a difficult uncertainty.  As hard as you work to build up a community, time has to put in no work at all to tear it down, to simply make it dissolve into nothing as people graduate and the population “turns over.”  But, as Grandpa Deacon and countless others before him discovered in even more uncertain settings than this, this putting-aside of yourself and building-up both of others in their time of need and of the Church as your mother can bloom into your life’s crowning victory and greatest joy.


Remember Your Leaders

December 12, 2010

By Andrew Boyd

For a while, the stately portrait of the late Metropolitan Leonty was put into storage while the interior of the building bearing his name here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary was repainted. When they put the picture back up, some of my fellow students seemed confused. I myself witnessed four different people nonchalantly ask “Huh, I wonder who that is?” It broke my heart. The late Metropolitan, in my estimation, is a Saint, and one of the best leaders our young, American Church has ever had. We are required to look at him and his example and wonder not who he is, but how we can change ourselves to be like him.

My home parish is named after St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre, and there is a rather nice icon of him on the right side of the iconostas. In that icon, St. Alexis is holding a scroll with a rather simple quote, “This is the teaching of your forefathers, your fathers, this is your faith through which all of us have come to salvation. Hold to it! Amen.” Our faith is dependent upon the remarkable people who have come before us and passed it down to us. How quickly our memory of them fades away as we become obsessed with our own personal stories.

St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre

Metropolitan Leonty was born Leonid Turkevich in 1876 in the Volhynia region in the Russian Empire which is now in Poland and the Ukraine. He arrived in America in 1906 as a married priest and was assigned to what is now St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis. He was also appointed to lead the new seminary recently set up in that same city. That seminary relocated to Tenafly, NJ in 1912, and Father Leonid went with it. He succeeded St. Alexander Hotovitzky as Dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York City.

Father Leonid was selected to represent the American Archdiocese at the All-Russian Council in Moscow in 1917-1918, just as the Bolsheviks seized power and civil war broke out. He even claimed that he introduced the motion that led to the election of Saint Tikhon as Patriarch. He somehow managed to return to America, but witnessed the destruction of his homeland and home Church in the process.

Then Fr. Leonid with his family

The 1920’s were a tough decade for Father Leonid. St. Nicholas Cathedral was lost to the Soviet-backed “Living Church” through a series of court battles. There is an apocryphal story that Father Leonid would not leave the Church, even at the order of the court and that he was dragged out by the police. In 1925, his wife passed away leaving him with five children to take care of. Immediately the Church in America attempted to make him a bishop, but he initially refused so that he could take care of his children.

In 1933, he took monastic vows and the name “Leonty” and was consecrated as bishop of Chicago and the Midwest. Shortly thereafter, an All-American Sobor (Pre-curser to our All-American Councils) was called to elect a replacement for the late Metropolitan Platon. Many tried to elect Bishop Leonty, but he insisted that Archbishop Theophilus, the most senior bishop, be elected. He continued to lead his Midwestern diocese, and had a hand in the reestablishment of seminaries in America in 1938.

In December 1950, following the death of Metropolitan Theophilus, he was elected Metropolitan at the 8th All-American Sobor. The vote was nearly unanimous as the Church recognized the decades of committed leadership that Archbishop Leonty had already accomplished. During his time leading our Church here in America, he blessed the establishment of the first English-speaking parishes, participated in the formation of SCOBA, revised the statutes of the Church, and took steps to heal the rift with our mother Church in Russia. He also led St. Vladimir’s Seminary from the departure of Father Georges Florovsky in 1955 until the appointment of Father Schmemann as dean in 1962. He fell asleep in the Lord on May 14, 1965, at the Chancery in Syosset which had been acquired through his work.

Metropolitan Leonty was a pious and ascetic man. He was extremely disciplined and kept the feasts and fasts of the Church strictly. He lived a simple and humble life. Many miracles have circulated around his life, and you often hear stories of him bi-locating, or being transfigured with the uncreated light, or hovering off the ground in prayer. While these stories are certainly amazing, I believe the way he impacted people, and they way he lived his life are far more amazing than anything supernatural. My mother grew up attending his cathedral, and when he walked in, completely dressed in white with a long, white beard, she thought she was looking at God himself. He radiated divine love. Father Alexander Schmemann recalls many stories about Metropolitan Leonty in his writings. Every time Father Alexander would serve with him, Metropolitan Leonty would give him dollar coins for his Children, despite them being grown. He would also subscribe to the St. Vladimir’s Quarterly every time he received it, so that the old Metropolitan would subscribe four times a year. Father Schmemann shares this recollection:

Vladyka Leonty did not lead anyone, he did not build anything… …nor was he an ascetic or a mystic living in the vision of the Spirit, delighting in his conversation with God as Metropolitan Vladimir. He was very much down to earth, very simple, and very much day-to-day. He stood in his place, which he did not seek and which he accepted as one more cross to bear with endless patience. He stood and blessed everyone and everything with his large, bony, warm hands, never waiting for great results, rejoicing in small things and was not saddened too much with failures. His somewhat sad but just a bit mischievous smile would say: Why are you worried? God will do everything if it is necessary, and it doesn’t really depend on us too much. He never insisted on anything, he never imposed anything. If he was invited somewhere, he would go. If he was not invited, he didn’t go nor did he ever look for invitations. If he went somewhere he would always bring a present: some small packet, a book or simply, a check. Money flowed through his hands and didn’t stick to them. We can now recall, with shame for our Church, that he would help out poorly paid priests, widows and other clerics, from his own pocket.

We need to be disciples of Metropolitan Leonty’s simplicity. His asceticism was not about suffering or punishment, but a true asceticism of doing what’s asked of oneself simply, and joyfully. He radiated the joy of the Kingdom, and the presence of Christ into the world, and that’s what we are called to be.  We need to be disciples of Metropolitan Leonty’s legacy, joyful ascetics who are never accused of having money stick to our hands.

Portrait of Metropolitan Leonty


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