Volume 5: Number 1

February 2, 2014

Wonder

Volume 5: Number 1

Why am I still here?

Four Orthodox Christians explore the foundations of their faith

Because God is with us, and loves us
Priest John Vitko

Because I was invited
Priest Benjamin Tucci

Because of my parents’ love
Ms Susan Lickwar Lukianov

Because of Forgiveness and Joy
Ms Catherine Golitzin

More information about our authors can be found here.


Because God is with us, and He loves us

February 2, 2014

Because God is with us, and He loves us

Fr. John Vitko

Why am I still here?  Why do I still believe in God and still go to church?  I suspect that these questions are being asked of me because I am relatively older (66 years old), am a physicist by training and have had a long and successful career as a government researcher and high level manager, and then retired, went to seminary and became a parish priest.  So why am I still here in the Church?

vigillampThe answer to this question has its beginning in my childhood.  God was always present in our home and some of my earliest memories are of my parents taking me, and my brother, to church.  The services were in Slavonic and we were too young to understand the words even if they were in English.  Nevertheless, we felt and knew the presence of God in the somewhat darkened interior of the church; the flickering candle light; the smoke, incense and icons; the deeply spiritual melodies that reached your inner being; and the reverential posture and attitude of those around us.  God was here, we experienced it in all our senses and knew it in our ‘inner heart’ – we did not need to understand the words and did not have to reason to know it.  For me, this experience was so overpowering that at times, I felt the church shake and thought God was speaking to me personally.  Only years later did I find out that a subway train ran two blocks nearby and that was what I was feeling.  And only decades later, did my daughter raise the question of whether that was just an amusing story or was God using something natural to speak to me.  What is much more certain and much less questionable was that at the age of 10, I had a vision of Jesus with outstretched hands calling me to Him.

waterWith a beginning like this, it is perhaps not surprising that I was interested in the priesthood as a little one.  But, ever since the age of 8 or so when my father told me water had a formula, it was H2O, I was also fascinated by science.  Whether I would pursue a priestly calling or a scientific career was decided for me by one of those factors that only loom large for kids.  I don’t like fish – so I felt I couldn’t fast – and so shouldn’t become a priest.  Therefore it was on to science:  a specialized technical high school in New York City, undergraduate and then graduate studies in Physics, culminating in a Ph.D. from Cornell University.  From there, I went on to a fulfilling research and management career at a government laboratory. I had the opportunity to work on many of the major technical issues confronting the Nation from the late 1970s until 2007:  alternate energy sources;  strategic defense;  global climate change;  environmental protection;  and chemical and biological defense.

To me, my knowledge of science only deepened my awe of God.  There was, and is, no conflict.  Science answers the how but not the why.  The love of the ever-existing God and Creator answers the why.  O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom Thou hast made them all!

3902632348_42a774b424With passing years, I continued to grow spiritually.  Falling in love, marrying an incredible woman, having and raising children were not only blessings but also taught me how to love beyond myself in ways I couldn’t imagine.  And getting involved in a mission parish opened the doors to more active involvement in all aspects of church life – from better knowledge of the services to teaching and outreach.   Eventually, I enrolled in the Late Vocations Program, which exposed me to the full richness of Holy Tradition and the teaching of the Fathers and led to my ordination to the Holy Diaconate.  The normal struggles of life – as uncomfortable as they may be – would also be a source of spiritual growth.  There was a period of about 6 months of long soul searching about career choices I was making– 6 months of ‘the dark night of the soul’–  that was only relieved by a stranger, who in one of my government related meetings asked me if I was a Christian and when I answered yes, said “I thought so from the very first time I saw you in a meeting.”  To me, this man was (and is) an angel sent by God.  And there were several years of struggling over some outreach that my wife and I were doing that wasn’t going according to our plan.  It took us a while to fully turn this over to God and realize that we were not in control.  What a lesson in humility and at the same time what freedom – recognizing that we are not the ones in charge and responsible – but that God is.

Constantly growing in God and being drawn closer to Him, I was blessed to be able to take early retirement from my science job and go to seminary and become a priest.  What a blessing from God to be able to fulfill both my childhood dreams – to be both a physicist and a priest.  And at the same time, what an awesome – and at times scary responsibility: to help others on their path to God.  It was only by realizing that it is God who is the true minister to the people and not me and that, as it says in the prayers said during my ordination, God will provide that which is lacking and make whole that which is incomplete, that I was not constantly overwhelmed.  My parish has been a source of great joy and of great spiritual growth for me.  Now when I read the Scriptures and hear God’s word, it is not only in the light of my own immediate experiences but in the light of all that my parishioners are experiencing.

awakening_grdeContrary to what some would have us believe:  God exists.  The world is not a random happening.  We are not bound by our genetics and our environment, but with God’s help, can rise up beyond them.  Each and every one of us is made in the image of God.  And each and every one is special and unique in the eyes of God.  He loves each of us totally and unconditionally and there is nothing we have done, nor that we can do, that will cause Him to stop loving us.  And for that, I am eternally grateful.  That is why I am still here!


Because I was invited

February 2, 2014

Because I was invited

excerpts from an interview with
Fr. Benjamin Tucci

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Fr Ben Tucci, the Youth Director and Assistant Priest at St Mary’s (OCA) Cathedral in Minneapolis, MN, and asked him to share some of his thoughts on why he is still here. It was a thoroughly enjoyable 30 minute discussion, and part of it has been captured, below. I fear I have fallen somewhat short of capturing Fr Ben’s passion and joy on paper, as well as a number of other details (one can say a lot in 30 minutes!), but this, perhaps, is why he asked me to interview him in the first place. Unfortunately, our environment did not lend itself to a recorded conversation, so a recollected transcript, derived from my notes, is all that remains of our exchange.   –Dn Jason Ketz

Father Ben, you’ve been an Orthodox Christian from your youth, and are currently the assistant Priest and Youth Director at one of the parishes in the OCA. What is it that keeps you here? What keeps you in the Church?

Looking back, it’s hard to find a single defining moment or reason for being here. Perhaps there was such an event when I was in college – an awakening of sorts, perhaps like a revelation, which I’ll get to in a moment, but even that awakening was only possible because of my childhood familiarity with the church – by which I mean the people.

PIROHI_LADIES_72dpi

For as long as I can remember, I went to church. I went with my parents, and even after they stopped going regularly, my aunt and uncle would make a point to bring me every several weeks.  It wasn’t every Sunday, but it was part of my life. This was essential, for several reasons. Of course, there was exposure to worship, to the sacraments, to the liturgy. But through the help of my family, I was connected to a broader network of people of all different ages, who worshiped together at my home parish. These people spanned multiple generations, and we formed a loose-knit ‘family.’ I was a kid at the time, so my memories are always from a kid’s perspective. For instance, I remember playing in the kitchen amidst the pieroghi ladies. They used to chase me and try and pinch my cheeks, or give me big hugs – you know, that good-natured physical affection that old women can show to young kids. I remember these ladies. My interaction with them was not extensive, but it made the church personal to me. I have similar fond memories of church school teachers, and many other members of the community. Many of my neighbors were also Orthodox (there was a large Greek population in my home town, too), as were many of my peers – all these living examples of Orthodox Christians.

I wonder, quite seriously, how much my positive encounters with other Christians keep me around.  Rhetorically, would I still be here if it weren’t for the pieroghi ladies?  But there is a serious question in that lighthearted musing.  I was blessed to have such good experiences. Some people have negative experiences with others in a Church environment, and how many of them stay around?  We can talk all we want to about how our faith and our Church is more than just the people in it, or we can say that ‘people are people,’ and that’s true. But saying that underestimates how important relationships are within a church community. For me, at least, I see them as foundational.

Eventually, I went off to college. College, for me, was not quite the radical environment that it is for many people today. Liberal, I suppose, but not so extreme. Not so hostile to personal experience and background. I don’t know how deep we want to go into this, but for me it felt comfortable being a Christian. I don’t recall feeling the need to defend my faith to others or to myself. The questions I wanted to explore, I felt free to do on my own terms, which was good, and in fact I was able to do just that.

field

One semester I took a class on World religions, trying to get a perspective on things, trying to learn what “truth” is, those types of questions. And I learned a great deal from the class. But then a strange thing happened.  The week that we covered Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I received a phone call from an old acquaintance at Church. One of my old Sunday school teachers. She invited me to come help clear a field for some youth event that our parish was going to have. And so I did. And while we worked, she shared with me just the most profound knowledge and wisdom I had heard in quite some time. It was amazing. And she asked me a great deal about my spiritual life. I remember her asking once whether I pray. At first, I was evasive, but she kept pushing, and eventually impressed upon me how essential prayer life was for us. At one point, she asked me ‘didn’t you learn this in Sunday school?’ But of course that question is a bit unfair. How many children actually understand the depth of the prayer “Lord, have mercy?”  I certainly didn’t have that sense of needing help in my youth. But I did by the time I was in college. And my old Sunday school teacher that day explained that it’s OK to ask God for help. What a profound idea: It’s OK to want God’s help!Insp Boy Prays

So I started praying. And I read the bible that night – no idea where to start, by the way,  so I just opened it, and happened upon St Simeon’s prayer in the Gospel of Luke (2:29-32). Here was a prayer within the bible. So I prayed that prayer. And then I went to vespers – and you gotta remember, I never went to vespers. We went to liturgy on Sunday. That’s it. So I went to vespers, and what did I hear in the service, but St Simeon’s prayer!  That week, it seemed like several pieces in a puzzle all fell into place. I had a bit of an awakening, you know?! I started to understand and to feel the relationship between Worship, Fellowship, Stewardship, and Education that makes up our Church experience. And I also began to realize how instrumental an invitation can be. I was invited back into church by somebody whom I identified with ‘the Church.’ I accepted the invitation, and I’m forever thankful that I did.  And ever since then, I have felt a level of stability in my faith. Always growth, of course, but that week in college was when I felt like I came to a much more mature understanding of Church, and accepted it. And especially prayer – that was so critical, finally being given permission to ask God for help!  So why am I still here? Because I believe in God, I believe in Christ, and I am a part of the community of believers. I’m here because of the love shown to me by others. I’m here because I have accepted an invitation.

Father, I think that’s a profound, solid answer to the question of why you’re still here. But you were a bit apprehensive to put this in writing.  Why did you initially find this so hard to express? Why did you want me to interview you?

Simeon

I felt like I was having trouble giving my story some meaning beyond me, from moving from the specific to the general. But maybe that’s not possible. I’m not sure. What significance does my story have for others? That’s a serious question…do you know what I’m saying? I don’t know if there are any general points or truths can be drawn from my experience, and I would certainly hate for people to be frustrated or discouraged if their experience is different. Some people have very moving conversion stories to share, or miracle stories or stories of mystical, spiritual experiences. Mine felt profound to me – it was a powerful day that Saturday when everything fell into place for me. But how can that relate to another’s personal experience? I feel like maybe we shouldn’t be seeking signs and miracles, maybe we make too big of a deal about such stories. So I have my life experience, which includes an awakening moment in college. Thank God and move on. This is the same response I have to other people’s stories. To that person, the story is incredibly valuable, but what is that to somebody else? Do you know what I’m trying to say? On the other hand, some people find great personal value in such stories, and if that works for you, go for it. But I just don’t want my personal experience to be a stumbling block or even a distraction. Because it’s not about me. It’s not about any of us.

russian-orthodox-faithful-in-church-2

Much more, would I like to convey a sense of the significance of a balance between worship, fellowship, stewardship and education- and prayer – to have a healthy Christian life.  I’m a priest now, so I forget sometimes exactly how much of a challenge our worship can be. Look what we put our little kids through each Sunday. Nearly two hours of mostly stationary worship, followed by 10 minutes of fellowship, and then we rush them off to a classroom for forty five minutes of religious education.  How engaging is that? After a decade or more of this, will our youth feel connected to the parish?  And if our youth do perceive this as a trying or monotonous way to spend Sunday morning, and if they don’t feel connected to the parish, then it’s no wonder to me that they choose not to return as adults. Not that we should change our worship – not at all! – but we should really focus on making social connections for the children and young adults as well.  Church is not a building or a service – it’s a community of faithful, coming together, being together, praying and acting together.  I always had a sense that the Church was alive. It was family. It was accessible. It was personal. And I was invited. And so I accepted the invitation, and I’ve wanted to be there ever since. Thank God.

Father Ben, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and as always, thank you for your continued ministry to the youth and young adults in the church.

My pleasure, deacon. This was so much more enjoyable to do this in person! I’m glad I didn’t leave you with some boring article.


Because of my Parents’ Love

February 2, 2014

Because of My Parents’ Love

Susan Lickwar Lukianov

Why am I still here? I am actually asked this question quite often. And this is not an easy question to answer, especially for a PK (Priest’s Kid). I say it is not easy to answer because the reasons I give seem so ordinary; not the “quick fix” or “step-by-step guide” that so many seek.  I’d like to be able to answer that my love of Christ, my faith, my desire to work on my salvation are the things that keep me coming back.

Truly I am still here because I want to love Christ as the Church teaches we should. I want to be strong in my faith. I want to be in paradise.  So the question for me becomes, why do I want those things?

That answer is easy-my parents and the example they have set.

images (1)My parents recently celebrated 50 years of marriage and service to the Church. By today’s standards this is not typical. But this couple lives their lives with a devotion to Christ and His Church. That has guided them through all.  I think it is important to understand what this devotion looks like, from a daughter’s perspective.

There are many layers to their relationship. There is their personal relationship and devotion to Christ and His Church, their relationship to Christ as a married couple; him as a husband; her as a wife; for him as a priest; her as a matushka; him as a dad; her as a mom. The Church teaches that each of those “roles” has its own set of responsibilities and at times makes suggestions of what one must do in each role. But there is one common thread among all of these and that is sacrifice. The wife sacrifices for the husband, the husband for the wife; the parents for the child, the priest for his flock.

It is clear that throughout their entire 50 years together, neither one of them ever put their own needs first. And their sacrifice was selfless; done in secret; never lauded over each other or those they willingly sacrificed for.  And more importantly, everything they did, they did together.  In living lives devoted to Christ, they also lived lives that were consistent in their devotion to Christ. And with their children, they practiced what they preached. They never asked anything of us as children that they themselves would not do.

What stays with a child are the things you see adults do when they think no one is watching.  My parents were consistent in their actions and behavior, both in and out of the Church.  I know that their love and example laid the foundation—and from there I experienced many other “things” that kept me coming back.  These are all reasons of why I am still here. 

I’m still here…

  • Because someone in the church community took the time to get to know me and my interests
  • Because I was allowed to sing in the choir from an early ageSt.-Sava-Serbian-Orthodox-Church-Choir
  • Because no one criticized my singing or chanting-only offered praise (and guidance and advise with love)
  • Because we prayed as a family and were taught to do so individually as well
  • Because so many gave of their time and talents to teach me about music in the church
  • Because we had church school and festivals and picnics and youth retreats AND parents encouraged their children to go
  • Because my parents took us to other church functions, Lenten Mission Services, Hierarchical Services (even when we complained that we did not want to go)
  • Because we fasted
  • Because we went to Vespers, Vigil, Liturgy, Feast Day Services, Lenten Services
  • Because I had peers and friends in the church
  • Because I witnessed the sacrifices my parents made for us on a daily basis
  • Because when I whined about Church and services, they listened, but made me understand why I needed to go
  • Because I helped clean the church
  • Because my parents made exceptions (rarely, but they did)
  • Because they let me become myself while growing in the church (nothing was forced on me)
  • Because we lived next door to the church (gave me a great appreciation for how much work is needed to maintain a Church)
  • Because of the little traditions

A lot of people took a lot of time to teach me, encourage me, and pray for me. And I recognized their love and concern because I saw it first in the example of my parents. I know that the loving example they set is why I am still here.  And there is no place I’d rather be.

Susan's Parents Celebrate 50 Years of Marriage and Co-Ministry

Susan’s Parents Celebrate 50 Years of Marriage and Co-Ministry


Because of Forgiveness and Joy

February 2, 2014

Because of Forgiveness and Joy

 Ms. Catie Golitzin

giving-up-on-churchI started my sophomore year of college walking away from Church.  I had grown up in an Orthodox home and had had what might be called a “solid Orthodox formation”:  but at this point in my life, something—read:  my own pride—had kept me from knowing, and remembering, who Christ was and is.  A year of college classes had encouraged me to question the ideas of God I had grown up with, which was problematic because in my mind at that time, Christ was only a subject of icons and hymnography.  I didn’t really know what our faith had to offer.

With self-satisfaction, I asked myself why such “stifling” rules were needed:  prayer from a fixed rule morning and night, fasting at certain times, awkward Confessions… However, I see now that I wasn’t pushing away the real Christ and His Church—I was wrestling with false representations of them that had taken root within me and blocked me from understanding Christ’s true command, to love God and neighbor, and the Church’s true mission, to become transformed in Christ’s love and to make God known in the world.  I had somehow lost the God-centered joy of the true Orthodox Christian way of life, which Father Alexander Schmemann described as seeing the world “shot through with the presence of God” (For the Life of the World, 16).

Thank God, this hellish period did not last too long and I began to rediscover the beauty of “the faith of our fathers” and the truth about human life and reality it holds.  Through participating in the life of the Church, I have been able to come to know Christ more fully and grow to be part of His Body, the Church He established on earth.  Most significantly for me, I have been able to experience compassion, forgiveness, and joy—and that is what keeps me coming back.

Something I had not been able to understand in my state of rebellion is that Christ said, “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).  In other words, Christ seeks out the sinner—that is, the one most in need of His saving power—out of compassion, instead of simply desiring that we follow “His” rules.  All the “rules” that had been a stumbling block to me before, I realized, are really tools (or perhaps not just tools, but signs and instances of God’s presence on earth) that have been sanctified and passed down for our benefit, so that we can come to know and love God more fully and live a life pleasing to Him.  In this perspective, God’s compassion and love for us are evident, as the joy that is the natural product of a life pleasing to Him flows into our lives and our relationships.

What keeps me coming back is, to use somewhat ill-fitting terms, both the “objective” knowledge of Christ’s presence and the “subjective” knowledge of His love.  Once, not too long ago, I was awaiting Confession, hoping in forgiveness and healing in Christ but without a clear idea of what that would actually be like.  Yet through the revelation of my sinful thoughts and actions and the priest’s counsel, I experienced a sense of true clarity which convinced me that the vast majority of concerns—personal, philosophical, political, even religious—that had been occupying my mind were of absolutely no importance.  They all drifted away in the greatness of a tiny glimpse of God’s presence and peace.  Similarly, the fact that I can go to my icon corner every evening and morning and speak to our Lord is a huge source of strength and comfort to me.  (Something I wish I had realized before:  the fact that these holy prayers are passed down from men and women who have come before us, and are not my own words, only strengthens the power of prayer.)  Unlike any merely human friend, mentor or relative, Christ never turns away from us—like the icons in church—and is always ready to welcome us back, if only we will return to Him.

This constancy is also reflected in God’s eternal moral law, which is desperately needed in our times in which we can be all too easily persuaded, as I was, that there is no God and that Christianity is for the naïve.  It is so easy to lose Christ’s essential teaching to love one another and revert to the pagan (in the literal, historical sense) ethos of self-preservation, or concern only for oneself and not for others.  Christ teaches us how we must live our lives:  to be mindful of Him, to be mindful of the other—our neighbor and our enemy alike—and to live holy and pure lives so that we do not fall into delusion or sickness of any kind.  “The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful” (C.S. Lewis, Meditations on the Psalms, 59), and I am attracted to this constancy and reality in the tumultuous and confusing world we live in.  In the same way, regularly going to Confession and receiving Communion are a way for me to commune with God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and gain supernatural strength and joy.  This practice also allows me to know myself better, reorder my priorities, and partake of the source of life—which is what makes life truly worth living.

Yet the “subjective” knowledge of Christ’s love and tender compassion for us is beautiful and joyful beyond words.  The knowledge of my own sinfulness and imperfection which it implies only reinforces this knowledge.  Knowledge of Christ’s love releases me from the pride of perfectionism—and every other form pride takes—and puts things in perspective.  It feels like a cold glass of water to my weary soul.  This is what keeps me coming back:  illuminating, invincible joy.  This joy is reflective of the natural joy of human friendships and love, but magnified because in Church, joy is seen at its source!  The world needs joy, more than anything, and Christian joy “has a transforming power, the only really transforming power in this world” (For the Life of the World, 55).  As ambassadors of Christ, we are to cultivate this light within ourselves and carry it into darkness.  We are to be witnesses to His Resurrection and transformative love.

Compassion, joy, forgiveness, grace:  this is what our Church offers to anyone who will repent, or in other words, admit that they don’t know everything and are in need of healing.  What else in life is worthwhile?


Volume 5: Number 1 Authors and Contributors

February 2, 2014

Fr John Vitko is currently the rector of St. Luke Orthodox Church in McLean, VA.  This is a ‘second career’ for him, so he likes to describe himself as a older “new priest”.  With a Ph.D in Physics, for the first 35 years of his career  Fr. John worked as a researcher and manager for a Department of Energy laboratory — then he took “somewhat early retirement”, went to seminary and was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 2009.  In his words, he feels especially blessed to have been able to pursue both his childhood dreams — that of being a priest and that of being a physicist. He loves parish life and his parishioners.

Fr Benjamin Tucci resides in Minneapolis with his wife Lisa and their son Philip. An alumnus of St Tikhon’s Seminary, Fr Ben is currently the assistant priest and youth director of St Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis.

Ms Susan Lickwar Lukianov lives with her husband in Ansonia, CT and attends Three Saints Orthodox Church (OCA) and Presentation of Christ into the Temple, Stratford, CT (ROCOR). An elementary school educator by trade, Susan holds a BA from Connecticut College and a MA from Columbia University. She has taught all grades K-6 and also trains other teachers in the teaching of mathematics and writing/compiling the elementary curriculum. Says Susan, “In my free time she truly enjoy all aspects of choir and Liturgical Music. I also enjoy working with the youth in our extended church community-we all love to sing together!”

Ms Catherine (Catie) Golitzin studies Italian at Pepperdine University, where she helped start an OCF this year. She attends St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Tarzana, CA and is involved in the Youth Equipped to Serve Program of FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christian United to Serve). She hopes to study Comparative Literature after graduation, teach literature at a middle or high school, and engage in youth ministry or missions work.

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