Epilogue: Orthodoxy – Home at Last
“I will give thanks to Thee, O Lord, with all my heart,
for Thou hearest the words of my mouth;
And I shall sing to Thee in the presence of angels.
I shall bow down and worship toward Thy holy temple.”
On December 4, 2011, the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, I entered into a new life. It was a glimmer of the joy I imagine I will one day, I hope, feel on my wedding day. I was received into the Orthodox Church by the laying on of hands and chrismation at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington D.C. His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah performed the ceremony. Surrounded by my family, parishioners, and standing in the invisible presence of God, the Theotokos, the other saints, the angels, and all the departed who are yet alive in Christ, I professed the Orthodox faith, that treasure beyond compare
“once for all delivered to the saints”.
Marilyn Swezey and Mikhail Arsentiev stood next to me as my godparents. As I closed my eyes and raised my hands in supplication to Almighty God, and Metropolitan Jonah anointed me on my forehead, my ears, my eyes, my mouth, my palms, and my feet, aside from Christ, I felt one person’s presence more than any other.
My twin brother Sean entered the world five minutes after I did on July 2, 1990. Seventeen days later he passed away. While I never knew him, I miss him every day. I miss the life he never lived with me, the laughs we never shared, and even the fights we never got to have together. Above all, I miss the deep friendship we never got to take for granted as twin brothers. I always wondered how my life would be different had he survived, and I have often wished that I could hear his voice. I don’t have to wonder at what he would have looked like: my parents always said all I needed to do when I wanted to see him was look in a mirror.
And so I live. When I was reading the Psalms the other day, my eyes fell to the opening of Psalm 33:
“I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall be praised in the Lord.”
What a joy it is to be alive! I will never know why God took my brother so soon from this earth, or why He wished me to remain here, but I feel a sense of wonderment and awe that I live. If my brother could pass away so soon, if hospital doctors were certain I was supposed to grow up mentally handicapped and bound to a wheelchair or even blind for life, and yet now I am as I am, what incomparable power God has, what mystery He works beyond our understanding! Oftentimes I feel overwhelmed with joy and gladness that I am alive. Life truly is a mystery. I recall Psalm 145
“Praise the Lord, O my soul, I shall praise the Lord as long as I live, I shall sing praises to my God while I have being.”
This is the joy that grips me every day of my life, the joy that flows from being alive.
My parents always said God must have kept me here for a reason, for His own purposes. Rather than trying to figure them out, as I used to, now I seek only to cooperate with God as He leads me in all that I do. I see my brother as a kind of guardian angel, and I feel that he wants me to live life as beautifully, and rightly, as I can. I truly believe he helped guide me to Orthodoxy.
I turned the pages of my Bible to another Psalm, 85:
“Incline Thine ear, O Lord, and hear me. Guard my soul: O my God, save Thy servant who hopes in Thee. Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for all the day long I will cry to Thee. Gladden the soul of Thy servant, O Lord, for to Thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”
This beautiful prayer helps me begin the conversation with God that occurs softly, in the quiet of the heart. It reminds me of the words of my patron saint, St Silouan the Athonite:
“My soul thirsts for the living God. Times and again my soul seeks fullness of delight in the Lord. My soul yearns for the Lord, and I seek him in tears. How could I not seek Thee, O Lord? For Thou Thyself didst seek me out, and gavest me to delight in Thy Holy Spirit, and now my soul yearns for Thee.”
My patron saint spent the closing decades of his earthly life in perpetual prayer and repentance, shedding endless tears for the suffering of the world. He lived as an ascetic in ceaseless prayer in a small cell on the Holy Mountain in northern Greece. When he died in 1938, his disciple, Archimandrite Sophrony, found thousands of notes that the barely literate saint had somehow penciled on scraps of paper. Wisdom from Mount Athos is the collection of these notes, and besides the Scriptures themselves, their words have inspired me more than any others. Reading through them for the first time, it is impossible to describe the joy that gripped me as I read his words about the all-encompassing love God has for each of us, and how our souls yearn to know God:
“The Lord loves us so dearly that it passes description. Through the Holy Spirit alone can the soul know His love, of which she is inexpressibly aware. The Lord is all goodness and mercy. He is meek and gentle, and we have no words at all to tell of His goodness; but the soul without words feels this love and would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.”
When I first read these words, I asked myself: does Sean feel this quiet tranquility? For as long as I can remember, I have wondered: Can he laugh? Does he see me? Is he aware of my presence? My soul feels his presence deeply. I wonder where he is, what heaven is like. I wonder what is must be like to see God, truly and up close.
I believe that our spirits, once separated from our bodies at physical death, must have the freedom to go where they please for some time before their particular judgment, not as haunting ghosts, but as freed, liberated souls, like rays of light. On the day of my chrismation, I felt my brother’s presence in the Cathedral so strongly. He was telling me, “Ryan, you are home.”
I don’t long for death at all—I am someone who loves every minute of life and treasures it for what it is: the sweetest of gifts from the Father of Lights. When, many years from now, God calls me to fall asleep and pass unto eternal life, I don’t have such a fear of the passing, of the upending of this mortal phase, since I have the comfort of knowing that my brother awaits me. It will be such a joy to at last see his face. I wonder if people grow in heaven, in any way reflecting the passage of time here on earth or the years since their earthly death, or will my brother appear as the baby he was when he departed this life? I am always drawn to little babies and toddlers; in part I see their fragile joy and their innocence and imagine my brother must have been this way in the short time he lived on this earth.
As this Lenten season begins, my first one as an Orthodox Christian, I am mindful of the countless blessings God has put in my life. In the past two years since my journey to Orthodoxy began, so many incredible people have come into my life. My incredible girlfriend has absolutely transformed and enriched my life beyond description. I cannot put into words just how much she means to me, and how grateful I am to God for her presence, all her invaluable advice, her constant support, and above all, her love. My godparents, Marilyn and Misha, are two of the kindest people I have ever met, each with a strong faith and a deep love for God, and I am so grateful for their prayers, support and friendship. Through St. Nicholas Cathedral in DC, I have made a fantastic friend, Ivan Plis, who is one of the most hilarious, brilliant, and kindhearted men I know.
I have made so many wonderful friends here in Scotland on exchange, and I remain close to my friends in the States, whom I miss very much. My relationship with my family means so much to me. My parents’ love and encouragement has grounded and sustained me in times when I doubted myself throughout my life. I have always felt really close to my mom, and in the past few years I have come to feel much closer to my dad than ever before. I see the Holy Spirit at work in this change, and in the healing that is coming to my family. I am so grateful to them for their acceptance of my conversion. As the older brother of two sisters, my parents’ reminding me that I should set a positive example for Lauren and Beth pushed me to excel and pursue my passions in history, languages, and writing, and, more recently, international politics, interfaith work, and theology. I miss them both very much. It amazes me that Lauren is about to go off to university and that Beth will be doing the same in just another year!
The monks at Holy Cross Monastery in East Setauket, my hometown, are exceptionally kind and hospitable men, of an almost palpable love for Christ. Worshiping with them before I left for Scotland was a deeply transformative experience. They are under the omophorion (canonical authority and protection) of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). From only the videos I have seen and what little I have read of him, he seems to be a wonderfully kind archbishop, filled with such grace and love for his flock, and I am overjoyed that the ROCOR is once again in communion with her sister Orthodox Churches. Three monks in particular at Holy Cross, Fr. Silouan, Fr. Hierodeacon Parthenios, and Monk Cornelius, have amazed me with their level of spiritual insight, kindness, and deep humility.
I cannot describe what a blessing it is to have the ability to attend the Divine Liturgy and receive communion in my hometown. Stepping into the monastery church, one enters not only a unique physical place, but ones comes into a whole spiritual mindset and frame of being that is a world removed from its surroundings outside. When I was younger I often passed the small white building with its peculiar gold onion dome, so out of place amidst the colonial architecture surrounding the village green in the New York town. Now, looking back after my chrismation, it seems that the monastery’s very presence was a sign that God was calling me to Orthodoxy.
Arriving in Edinburgh on exchange for the semester, I began worshipping at a church quite unlike any other I had ever entered. The community of St Andrew here (under the omophorion of Archbishop Gregorios of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain) is a testament to the international catholicity- the wholeness, the unity in faith- of Orthodoxy. When I attend Liturgy here, I experience the same liturgy that priests in every Orthodox church worldwide celebrate on Sundays. I am brought into the same Orthodoxy that the faithful live at St. Nicholas and at St Sophia Cathedrals in Washington, the same faith which transcends language, different cultural heritages, and historic jurisdictions. Here at St. Andrew’s are the Slavonic and Byzantine chant modes I came to love in the Orthodox parishes I attended in D.C. Deacon Luke and his wife Marion, both exceptionally kind and warm people, lead the choir together. Coming to liturgy here, I feel a close connection to the Orthodox worshipping in D.C., in my hometown in New York, and all the faithful everywhere. As I participate for the first time as an Orthodox Christian in the Great Fast of this Lenten season, I feel at home.
St Andrew’s is a vibrant parish full of young families with more babies and little children than I have ever seen gathered in one place. One little boy of six, Yuri, who matter-of-factly tells me and my Romanian friends that he is a “Russian from Glasgow from Latvia”, has such a joy in him, such a lively personality and such an inquisitive nature (in and outside of Liturgy!) that I see firsthand the Church’s wisdom in keeping little children present at Liturgy, allowing them to take everything in, the sounds of the choir and the bells, the scent of incense and rose oil, the sight of the icons, vestments and the candles, so that they grow up in the bosom of the Church community. When I compare the Church’s wisdom in providing for this cura personalis kind of education and introduction for its children to the attitude common to many churches among different Western denominations that see worship services primarily as ‘ordered, disciplined instruction’ for teens and adults, and consequently ferry their kids off to Sunday school at the earliest possible point in the service, there is no real comparison in my eyes.
To raise one’s children surrounded by and immersed in the fullness of the Christian community in all its beauty and its imperfections, its glories and its frailties, to show them the images of the saints invisibly present on the walls and on the iconostasis, to instill in them a familiarity and a love for Orthodox worship from the earliest age, this seems to me the most natural way of raising one’s children to love Christ, to know what it is to be in awe of God before one can contemplate a sermon or understand the Gospel. Just as I saw at St. Nicholas Cathedral, at St. Andrew’s I see parents inevitably struggling with noisy or inattentive toddlers, but no one seems to mind. For anyone wholly caught up in the Liturgy, worship transcends such distractions, and in a way, the presence of these young children, these people so new to the world who can so easily feel wonder and express awe, adds to the beauty. I see the radiance that enters a child’s eye when his mother raises him up to light a candle, or when a little girl’s father lifts her up so she can kiss the icon of the Theotokos, and these are small moments of beauty and wonder that might plant themselves in the very core of a child’s memories.
St. Andrew’s is a remarkably diverse community. There are many Americans, as well as Scottish and English converts, as well as a small number of mostly Romanian students attending the University of Edinburgh. Most of the Divine Liturgy is sung in English, with parts in Greek and Romanian for the large and vibrant immigrant communities from these countries. My experience with the latter language is new, and it is a beautiful, lively Romance one which reminds me very much of Italian. What is most remarkable about this community is that we worship in a house church facing the Meadows Park. It was built as an ordinary house, and only from the cross painted in gold on the front door can one identify the building as a church. Stepping into the church for the first time I felt the distinct impression that this is how the early Christians must have felt worshipping clandestinely in each other’s houses. The reason for our worshiping in this house church has nothing to do with the persecution the first believers faced, but worshiping in this humble building, in contrast to the magnificence of the two cathedrals which were my principal previous experiences of Orthodox worship, is a new and inspiring experience.
Two priests at St. Andrew’s have made a deep and lasting impression on me. They are archimandrites, monks with a high degree of spiritual development and cultivation, and both have at the end of Liturgy given poignant, eloquent and powerfully challenging sermons urging us to examine ourselves and enter into a new cleanliness of being, of heart, mind and action, this Lenten season.
Father Avraamy (Neyman), the English monk who invited me to his house for dinner on Meatfare Sunday, is an absolute delight to talk with, and I cannot describe how much his warm hospitality moved me. He is a man of exceptional kindness, lively wit and great humor. I deeply enjoyed his stories about his childhood growing up in southern England, attending a public boys’ school, and what his life entailed before he became a monk. He is also a convert from Roman Catholicism, so it was wonderful to be able to talk to someone with the same background and a similar journey into Orthodoxy. A lover of beautiful choral music, he shared with me several magnificent compositions of Ambrosian chant, including sixteenth century Seville composer Francisco Guerrero’s O Sacrum Convivium (O Sacred Banquet). I am also profoundly grateful for his gentle pastoral guidance.
Father Raphael (Pavouris), my confessor here, is a kind, quiet presence with the inner grace and humility of a man who has lived on holy Mount Athos. His gentle words of kindness, guidance, and healing have greatly helped and comforted me, and I strongly sense the presence of the Holy Spirit working through him. I am profoundly grateful for his prayers for me and for my family at the altar.
I am deeply grateful to Fr. Valery at St Nicholas Cathedral, for his kind and instructive guidance during my time as a catechumen, and especially for introducing me to St Silouan! His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, my spiritual father, is a reservoir of grace, kindness, deep faith, and pastoral guidance. Even from across the Atlantic, his words of wisdom reach me through modern technology: the OCA website, the St. Nicholas Facebook page, and Youtube and Vimeo videos. This is a great comfort. He is not only a primate charged with the care of his Church. To the people of St Nicholas parish, he is in every sense a loving pastor.
Metropolitan Jonah often speaks at St. Nicholas about the Orthodox view of repentance, which is, he frequently points out, quite different from the traditional Western emphasis on guilt and penalty for one’s sins. The Eastern emphasis is on the power of the term repentance itself, which means ‘to turn away’ from these sins into the healing embrace of God’s love, for He is the physician of our souls. At his June 2009 address to the newly formed Anglican Church in North America, the Metropolitan spoke of the importance of surrendering to God, of opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s transformative grace and light:
“We have to surrender to God, personally, in the depths of our being. Our surrender, and this takes tremendous humility, is that spiritual quest to allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit. It is a quest of repentance, and renewal of our mind. Repentance does not mean feel guilty and beat yourself up. That’s not repentance. Repentance means be transformed in the renewal of your minds. What we’re talking about is a radical spiritual transformation that we are called to by the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that we can enter into and participate in that living unity. And it takes that complete surrender of our lives, on every level, the surrender of our passions, the surrender of our attachments, the surrender of all of those passions which we hold so dear, and especially all of the resentments which we bear.”
This Lenten season, when Christians are called to deny the control these passions so often exert over our lives, His Beatitude’s words are especially poignant for me. The true Lenten spirit involves fasting, for certain, since, as St John Chrysostom observed over sixteen centuries ago, “fasting is a medicine” for body and soul. Yet what is far more important than whether or not we adhere exactly to the Church’s teachings on abstaining from all meat and dairy during the forty days before Pascha is that we live in the right spirit of love, charity, and humility toward our God and our fellow sinners. In this way we can hope to “enter into and participate in that living unity” with Christ in the Holy Spirit. St. John Chrysostom, the author of the Divine Liturgy, writes in On Fasting that
“Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Show me your fast with your works. If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him!”
St John’s words urge us to greater love of the other in this time of renewal, discipline, and hope (for we await the death and Resurrection of our Lord!) He cautions against gossip and cruel speech, urging us to “fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers?” His advice for Lent is advice we are meant to live by throughout the year, throughout our lives.
God acts in ways far beyond our understanding. He is God. He moves outside our conception of time and place. He touches our lives in ways we would never expect, and in subtle, soft whispers which we do not always notice. The Byzantine tradition of hesychia cultivated at Mount Athos, the discipline of acquiring inner silence and the stillness of the heart, allows us to see and feel and perceive so much more of God’s activities in the world, among us, if we only endeavor to keep this stillness. This stillness is not one which insists we remain physically motionless, but that we ceaselessly strive to commit our soul to the whispering guide of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who will put a deep, peaceful quiet in our heart.
If we do this, and we free ourselves to perceive the incredible beauty in God’s creation all around us, His reverberating presence in the joy, laughter, tears, and sufferings of each of our fellow man beckons us to see His presence within ourselves. In our morning prayers, Orthodox invoke the Holy Spirit, the “Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who are everywhere present and filling all things.” We ask Him to dwell in us, for He is “the Treasury of Blessings and the Giver of Life.”
I rejoice with all my being to have found the Orthodox way. Giving humble thanks to Almighty God, aware of the blessings that He has bestowed on me, I close with a supplication left to us by St. Silouan who cultivated such a reverence and awe for all of God’s creation, all the natural world and the men that inhabit it, that he prayed ceaselessly and sought the Holy Spirit in tears.
“O ye people of the earth, fashioned by God, know your Creator and His love for us!
Know the love of Christ, who in His mercy waits for all men to come unto Him.
Turn to Him, all ye peoples of the earth, and lift your prayers to God. And the prayers of the whole earth shall rise to heaven like a soft and lovely cloud lit by the sun, and all the heavens will rejoice and sing praises to the Lord for His sufferings whereby He saved us.
Know, all ye peoples, that we are created for the glory of God in the heavens. Cleave not to the earth, for God is our Father and He loves us like beloved children. . .
O Lord, grant to all nations to know Thee by Thy Holy Spirit.”
– Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, May 2012