Monday, December 17, 2007

The Monastic Tonsuring of Sister Vicki

Dear Parish Faithful,

It was a deeply-felt joy to be present and to participate in the tonsuring of Sister Vicki as a rassophore nun on the Feast Day of St. Herman of Alaska (December 13). This took place in the chapel of at the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, the home of Sister Vicki's new monastic community. Sister Vicki spent over twenty years as a teacher, and then made the life-changing decision to test her possible monastic vocation in 2002. She then returned home briefly to distribute her earthly goods before returning permanently to the monastery in the Fall of 2003. And now she is committed to being an Orthodox nun! It is always a great blessing for any given parish community when a priest or monastic emerges from its enclosure to pursue one of these worthy vocations within the life of the Church. We are now assured that Sister Vicki and perhaps the entire sisterhood is holding up our community before God in prayer on a daily basis. We also have a place of pilgrimage brought much more readily to our attention with one of our former parishoners and close friends in residence there. And we now have a living example of someone who has freely chosen to follow Christ with a love and intensity that is so lacking in our contemporary world. I am not quite sure how to put it, but for me it is deeply satisfying, as a parish priest, that a monastic has come forth from our parish community, and that however modest my contribution, I was a small part of that process. Having said that, I will also admit to missing Sister Vicki's presence among us! Her commitment, encouragment, obedience and love for Christ were always in clear evidence through her helpfulness here when she was a parishoner for a little over ten years.

There were three of us present for her tonsuring, for Dan Georgescu - our driver - and Shirley Leara were part of our parish delegation to the monastery. It is about a five - six hour trip to the monastery. When we first arrived, the air was crisp and the sky clear, as Shirley pointed out the lovely spectacle of a vast and starry sky made a bit brighter in the darker rural setting of the monastery. We went straight to the church for we arrived as the Vigil for St. Herman was being served. Splendid as the evening was, it was wonderful to enter the warmly inviting atmosphere of the monastery chapel. With its many beautiful ceiling frescoes, seasonal vestments and colors, softly-burning candles, and the reverent singing and chanting of the nuns, all expressing the presence of God, the church as the ark of salvation and true home of the believer was vividly apparent to us. The well-known theologian and author, Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, was the celebrant, as he retired to a home near the monastery and now serves in the chapel on a regular basis. We were in time for the anointing and distribution of blessed bread during the chanting of the Canon prescribed for Matins. Following the service, we were able to chat briefly with Sister Vicki and the other mothers and sisters of the community.

The Feast of St. Herman beginning the next morning was most splendid. We began with the chanting of a superb akathist hymn in honor of St. Herman's "great deeds" in North America, followed by the third and sixth hours and then the tonsuring of Sister Vicki. This relatively short rite included the chanting of appropriate psalms by Sister Vicki; a prayer for her new status as a rassophore nun; the "tonsuring," or cutting, of some of her hair, symbolic of offering her whole life up to God in repentance and service; and her clothing in some more of the monastic clothing as this has developed over the centuries. In addition to her black monastic rassa, Sister Vicki now wears a new headpiece with veil, a pleated mantia (when she reads the Scriptures in the Liturgy), and an elaborately tied scarf that covers her head and shoulders peculiar to Romanian Orthodox monasticism. Sister Vicki was "clothed" by Mother Christophora, the abbess of the monastery. The service was perfomed by Fr. Alexander Culter, the igumen of St. John the Evangelist Monastery in Hiram, OH, and now Sister Vicki's spiritual father. Only a hieromonk, or monk-priest, may serve at the tonsuring of another monastic. When Fr. Alexander read aloud a final admonition to her about obedience in all things to her abbess, and the need for humility and self-sacrifice, I leaned over to Fr. Tom and whispered: "That's rough." He responded: "Yes, but that's the Gospel!" The Divine Liturgy then followed, with three of us concelebrating.

Asked to speak a few words in honor of Sister Vicki's tonsuring, I began by sending the heartfelt greetings and best wishes from the parish as a whole. I told everyone present that it probably would not come as a surprise if I further mentioned that Sister Vicki was like my "right arm" while a parishoner at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit - totally committed, quietly zealous, obedient, encouraging and helpful. And that, as much as I rejoice in her new-found vocation, it was initally disorienting, as "losing" her was something like having my right arm severed! But we continue to remain very close and I am sure that that will continue for the years to come. I was struck by the peacefulness and serenity that was clearly present in Sister Vicki. This was most obvious, of course, in her face, which had a certain inner glow about it. This has always been true to some extent in Sister Vicki, but it has evidently been enhanced and even magnified in her new monastic life. I shared this with Fr. Tom, who responded by saying that Sister Vicki has been a most welcome addition to the community;that she is always quietly on the move and doing her work; and that she is somehow just "there" at all times. Sister Vicki has found God and her earthly vocation - a dual gift that sadly eludes many, many people.

A warm meal was shared by everyone in the trapeza following the Liturgy. Truly a feast, for we had shrimp in honor of St. Herman! Shirley presented Sister Vicki with some practical gifts for daily life, and I presented Mother Christophora with a check in honor of Sister Vicki's tonsuring from the parish. After a visit to the enticing monastery gift shop we left for home, having spent an extensively short, but intensively filled, amount of time at the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration. Dan made the trip home thoroughly enjoyable by sharing with us from his impressive CD collection of Orthodox hymnography from a variety of traditions.

When, in the providential will of God, Sister Vicki is tonsured further into the monastic life with the taking of the distinctively monastic vows, in a more elaborate and fuller service, I am hoping that we will be able to make the trip with yet a larger body of the parish faithful. For now, let us always remember Sister Vicki in our prayers as she surely remembers us.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Image of Giving in St Nicholas

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

There are fourteen days of charity, prayer and fasting left before Christmas ... Redeem the time.

We recently commemorated St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, the Wonderworker (December 6). There is a certain unresolved tension that accompanies his person and memory: On the one hand, there are few "hard facts" about his life (to the point where many doubt his actual historical existence); and on the other hand, he is clearly one of the most beloved and universally venerated of saints within the Church. It is said that even many Muslims venerate St. Nicholas! A good example of an objective account of the few facts behind the saint's life can be found in a short introductory biographical note concerning St. Nicholas in the book, The Time of the Spirit:

Little is known for certain about the life of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor). It is believed that he suffered imprisonment during the last major persecution of the Church under Diocletian in the early fourth century, and that he attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325. Christian tradition has come to regard him, in the words of an Orthodox hymn, as "an example of faith and an icon of gentleness." (Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

For those interested in the historical background of St. Nicholas, the following note found in The Synaxarion, Vol. II, edited by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonas Petras, may prove to be of real interest:

Since the medieval period, St. Nicholas of Myra has been confused with St. Nicholas of Sion, who founded a monastery not far from Myra at the end of the 5th century. The Vita of the latter has come down to us but the incidents in it have been entirely ascribed to St. Nicholas of Myra, with the result that St. Nicholas of Sion has been forgotten n the hagiographical accounts.... See The Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion, edited and translated by I. N. P. Sevcenko (Brookline, MA, 1984).

So, even if we are dealing with a "composite figure" when we venerate St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, we nevertheless are given a glimpse into the "mind of the Church" when it comes to an image of a true pastor. A powerful and enduring image of a genuine Christian shepherd has remained within the memory of the Church, regardless of the now unrecoverable "facts" behind the actual history of 4th - 5th c. Asia Minor. It is this "unerring" intuition of the People of God that the faithful respond to up to the present day that remains as a solid foundation upholding all of the wonderful stories that endear us to St. Nicholas. The Church today desperately needs bishops of the type embodied by St. Nicholas. A shepherd who is a "rule of faith and an image of humility" would mean a great deal more than bishops who rely on Best Practices to maintain the Church's integrity; or lawyerly-jargoned assurances of "fiscal transparency." St. Nicholas both protected and interceded for his flock, according to the great Russian Orthodox iconographer, Leonid Uspensky. And he further writes:

This 'life for others' is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men: his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death. Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast, uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit. (The Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

Well-known as St. Nicholas has been, he is perhaps less well-known in today's world. In fact, he may be slowly slipping away from Christian consciousness. Santa Claus, that rather unfortunate caricature of the saintly bishop, clearly has something to do with this. But perhaps the very virtues embodied by this saint are slowly fading from our consciousness. A few weeks back, I wrote a meditation that passed on the name our social and secular world has "earned" for itself through its rampant commercialization of Christmas - and that is Getmas. The author who coined this new term - I forget his name - claims it came to him based on a conversation he had had with a good friend about the "spirit of Christmas." The friend of our author said that Christmas was about "getting things." When the author countered by saying, "I thought Christmas was about giving," the friend quickly retorted: "Sure, people are supposed to give me things!" Out of this sad exchange came the unfortunate, but accurate, Getmas.

St. Nicholas was about the proper understanding of "giving." Perhaps the most enduring quality of his image is that of giving to children in need. Our children learn that those who already "have" more are those who will yet "get" more. And that is because they are taught this by their parents who yield to their childish demands. So we persist in widening the gap of imbalance between the "haves and "have-nots" without too many pangs of (Christian) conscience. St. Nicholas wanted to restore a sense of balance, and so he looked first to those who were in need, so that they could also taste some childlike happiness from receiving an unexpected gift. In a simple manner, this imitates the giving of God Who gave us Christ at a time when everyone - rich and poor alike - were impoverished through sin and death. I sometimes fantasize that an ideal celebration of Christmas would find a relatively affluent family making sure that they spent more on those in need than on themselves. If Christianity is indeed the "imitation of the divine nature" as St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, then that need not necessarily be such an unrealistic idea. I do not believe that I have ever done that, so I convict myself through the very thought. Yet, I am convinced that our children would respond with an eager spirit of cooperation if properly prepared for some approximation of that ideal. Why should it be otherwise if, according to the Apostle Paul, Christ said that it is more blessed to give than to receive?

Once again, just a thought based upon the image of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker.

Fr. Steven

Friday, December 7, 2007

An Orthodox Understanding of The Immaculate Conception

Dear Parish Faithful,

On December 9 - this coming Sunday in 2007 - we commemorate The Conception by the Righteous Anna of the Most Holy Theotokos. Joachim and Anna, the parents of Miriam of Nazareth, were aged and despondent due to their childlessness. After intense prayer, the Lord responded to their entreaties and revealed to them separately that Anna will conceive and give birth to a girl that would be destined to serve God in a marvelous and unique manner. (This is why Joachim and Anna brought their child to the Temple when she was only three years old). The Virgin Mary was conceived as all human persons are conceived, thus revealing the potential sanctity of marriage and conjugal relationships based on love and purity of heart.

For the Roman Catholic Church, this commemoration became not only a major feast, but was dogmatized as the Immaculate Conception in 1854 by Pope Pius IX (hence the many Roman Catholic churches named "The Immaculate Conception"). In his "apostolic constitution," Ineffabilis Deus, the pope declared: "The doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in the first instant of her Conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, savior of the human race, has been revealed by God and must, therefore, firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful."

This dogma presupposes a particular understanding of "original sin," one that permeated all of Western theology, but which never entered the theology of the Christian East, except for the recent centuries, when Orthodoxy was subject to strong Roman Catholic or "Western" influence. The Orthodox Church has never accepted this very late dogma, because it severs the Virgin Mary from the rest of humanity, making her the "great exception," rather than the "great example" as Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I would like to simply record two paragraphs written by contemporary Orthodox theologians explaining why there is no need for such a dogma, and how it distorts our understanding of the Theotokos and human sexuality; and beyond that to our understanding of "original sin."

From a footnote in The Synaxarion (Lives of Saints) under December 9, we read the following (I believe from the book's contemporary editor, Hieromonk Macarius, of Simonas Petra monastery on Mt. Athos):

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception proclaimed by the Roman Catholics in 1854 is rejected by the Orthodox Church, but without in any way detracting from the dignity of the Mother of God. In fact, according the Fathers, the inheritance from Adam consists not in a personal responsibility of all men for original sin, but simply in the inheritance of the consequences of that sin: death, corruption and the passions ... Hence the Orthodox have no difficulty in recognizing that the Mother of God was heir, like us, of the consequences of Adam's sin - Christ alone was exempt -but at the same time pure and without personal sin, for she freely kept herself from all attraction for the world and for the passions, and she voluntarily co-operated in God's purpose by obeying His will with docility: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word," she replied to the Angel Gabriel (LK. 1:38). (The Synaxarion, Vol. II, p. 361)

From a somewhat different perspective, including our understanding of human sexuality and sexual intercourse, Fr. Thomas Hopko writes the following:

The Orthodox Church affirms original sin. Orthodox theology teaches that all human beings, including the Virgin Mary who is a "mere human" like the rest of us - unlike her Son Jesus who is a "real human" but not a "mere human" because He is the Incarnate Son and Word of God - are born into a fallen, death-bound, demon-riddled world whose "form is passing away" (I COR. 7:31). We are all born mortal and tending toward sin. But we are not born guilty of any personal sin, certainly not one allegedly committed "in Adam." Nor are we born stained because of the manner in which we are conceived by the sexual union of our parents. If sexual union in marriage is in any sense sinful, or the cause in itself of any sinfulness or stain, even in the conditions of the "fallen world," then as even the rigorous Saint John Chrysostom has taught, God is the sinner because He made us this way, male and female, from the very beginning. (The Winter Pascha, pp. 42-43)

This is an excellent example of how various "dogmas" are interconnected with others, or at least with the basic presuppositions of a particular Church's teaching. As Orthodox, we believe that there are major misleading elements embedded in the Roman Catholic and Protestant understanding of "original sin," including the teaching "that the transmission of the stain of original sin is by way of the manner of human reproduction through sexual intercourse." (The Winter Pascha, p. 42, note 3) Thus, a faulty notion of one key teaching can "logically" lead to the development of a faulty dogma. The Virgin Mary and Theotokos was conceived like we all are, and she died as we all die, and she was saved through Her Son's Death and Resurrection as we all are. Once more, from Fr. Thomas Hopko:

Mary is conceived by her parents as we are all conceived. But in her case it is a pure act of faith and love, in obedience to God's will, as an answer to prayer. In this sense her conception is truly "immaculate." And its fruit is the woman who remains forever the most pure Virgin and Mother of God. (The Winter Pascha, p. 43)

To become "more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim," the Theotokos did have not to be specially "preserved" or "exempt" from being like us in her human origins. It was a matter of hearing the Word of God and keeping it in her heart, to be pondered and practiced with the intensity that comes through great faith and trust in God's mercy, providential care, presence. and love.

Fr. Steven

Nothing Extraordinary... Just Divinely Good

Dear Parish Faithful,

There are 20 days of charity, prayer and fasting left before Christmas ... "Redeem the time."

Q. How do you know that a parish is Orthodox?
A. When you lose count of how many of the male members are named Nicholas.

Therefore, our parish remains steadfastly Orthodox, with Nicholas remaining a very popular name - represented by young and old and various ethnic backgrounds. I count nine with the name of Nicholas, though we will lose Nick and Amanda Vatamaniuc as they make their move to Virginia permanent after this weekend. We wish them the best. That leaves us with eight other Nicholases to celebrate their name day on this December 6. (If allowances are made for different spellings, male and female forms, and even the parish clergy, Steven/Stephen/Stefanie also totals eight). For today, though, we want to wish our parish Nicholases a blessed name day - many years!

In his book, The Winter Pascha, Fr. Thomas Hopko has a chapter dedicated to St. Nicholas. The following two paragraphs are taken from that chapter:

Sad as it is to see Saint Nicholas transformed into the red-suited Santa Claus of the secular winter "holidays," it is easy to understand why the holy bishop has become so closely connected with the festival of Christ's birth. The stories about the saint, fabricated and embroidered in Christian imagination over the ages, in various times and places, all tell of the simple faith and love of the man known only for his goodness and love.

The extraordinary thing about the image of Saint Nicholas in the Church is that he is not known for anything extraordinary. He was not a theologian and never wrote a word, yet he is famous in the memory of believers as a zealot for orthodoxy, allegedly accosting the heretic Arius at the first ecumenical council for denying the divinity of God's Son. He was not an ascetic and did no outstanding feats of fasting and vigils, yet he is praised for his possession of the "fruit of the Holy Spirit ... love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (GAL. 5:22-23). He was not a mystic in our present meaning of the term but he lived daily with the Lord and was godly in all of his words and deeds. He was not a prophet in the technical sense, yet he proclaimed the Word of God, exposed the sins of the wicked, defended the rights of the oppressed and afflicted, and battled against every form of injustice with supernatural compassion and mercy. In a word, he was a good pastor, father, and bishop to his flock, known especially for his love and care for the poor. Most simply put, he was a divinely good person. (The Winter Pascha, pp. 38-39)

The Church's hymnography captures the image of this holy bishop thus:

O holy father,
The fruit of your good deeds has enlightened and
delighted the hearts of the faithful.
Who cannot wonder at your measureless patience
and humility?
At your graciousness to the poor?
At your compassion for the afflicted?
O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well,
And now wearing your unfading crown, you intercede
for our souls.
Vespers of the Feast of Saint Nicholas

Fr. Steven