Does Orthodoxy Matter? A Case Study

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And here’s the challenging question …

In the absence of an Orthodox church nearby would you be prepared to pray at home rather than pray with the heterodox?

 

Father Seraphim Rose holding an icon of the Holy Trinityblessed seraphim.jpg

Orthodoxy means “true glory” or “true faith.”  We Orthodox think very highly of the word.  Or do we?  When it comes down to it, does Orthodoxy actually matter all that much to us (as it should)?  Orthodox Christians in the west find themselves living among many different Christianities and it can sometimes be tempting to think that notwithstanding some of the more obvious differences, (icons, the Theotokos, fasting, worship, for example), all these Christian traditions share much the same faith as us.  If you are of this opinion, then I am sorry to have to disappoint you, but it just isn’t true at all.  How so?

I am going to consider this issue by looking at a case study which reveals the damage that heresy can do in our personal lives, our relationships and even to the society and world that we live in.  It is a fictional story, but quite typical.

John and Mary go to an Evangelical Anglican Church.  John is Orthodox (Greek tradition).  Mary is Anglican.  This is her second marriage, being a young widow with one teenage son (Ian, 15) still living at home. She now has two children with John, daughters, aged 5 and 7.  John would prefer to go to his local Greek Church but his wife is a committed Anglican, and their children, although baptised in the Orthodox Church (with the exception of Ian), prefer the “lively worship songs”, as they put it, which are included in the church’s family service.  Ian is very involved in the local youth group and is thinking eventually of becoming an Anglican minister.  Does Orthodoxy then matter to John?  Well, yes, but only in a remote nostalgic sort of way.  It is some years now since he has attended Divine Liturgy, the last time was at Pascha in 2008.  His stepson, Ian, will have nothing to do with what he considers to be the “stuffy incomprehensible worship” at his stepdad’s church which he has visited once, just after his stepfather’s marriage.

Ten years later ….

Neither John nor Mary now regularly attend the Anglican Church.  John still hasn’t been back to the Orthodox Church since Pascha 2008 and Mary doesn’t like the new Vicar who is a woman.  Mary is quite a conservative evangelical believer who maintains that a woman should not be in a place of authority within the Church over men.  (This is the evangelical doctrine of the”headship of the male.”)  Her two daughters, now 15 and 17 still attend on their own and are very active in the youth group.  Ian, who shares his mother’s conservative outlook, has also left the church, disagreeing with what he believes to be the Anglican Church’s tolerance of homosexual partnerships.  He has started attending a very conservative Baptist church that teaches pure Calvinism, in particular, the doctrines known as TULIP (from the first letter of each doctrine), namely:-

Total Depravity – As a result of Adam’s fall, all humanity, is dead in sins and therefore damned.  Humanity’s nature is corrupt and utterly incapable of godliness.

Unconditional Election – Because man is dead in sin, he is unable to initiate a response to God; therefore, from eternity God elected certain people to salvation and others to damnation. Election and predestination are unconditional; they are not based on man’s response because man is unable to respond to God, nor does he want to.

Limited Atonement – Because God determined that certain people should be saved as a result of His unconditional election, He determined that Christ should die for the elect alone. All whom God has elected, and for whom Christ died, will be saved but the rest will be damned to hell for all eternity; again as determined by God’s sovereign will.

Irresistible Grace – Those whom God elected He draws to Himself through irresistible grace. God makes man willing to come to Him. When God calls, man responds.  Man cannot choose to love God by his own choice and freedom.

Perseverance of the Saints – The precise people God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith to the end. None whom God has elected will ever be lost; they are eternally secure even though they may sin grievously after election.

Although Ian is a pious and committed believer these doctrines trouble him.  He begins to doubt that he is one of the elect, chosen by God for salvation.  His sinful life (he occasionally resorts to prostitutes) troubles him greatly but his church tells him that he is unable to make any right choice and save himself.  Ian enters a very dark period of depression, made much worse by the impact of these heresies on his mental health.  His fragile relationship with his atheist girlfriend disintegrates.  He seeks medical help for a latent depression which has now become the full blown clinical variety.

Five years further on, the two daughters are now at the same university, one just about to graduate but they have been unable to find an evangelical church they like nearby, so they have stopped attending church on the grounds that they believe in Christ and are saved, so what’s the point?  Back home John and Mary now lead thoroughly secular lives.  John sometimes thinks wistfully of his childhood back in Cyprus when he used to attend church with his Nana but this seems to him a very distant idealised time now.  He hopes, nonetheless, that his wife or children will respect his wish for an Orthodox funeral if he dies first.

So, did Orthodoxy matter to John?  Well yes, particularly earlier on, but for most of his adult life only in a nominal sort of way.  He had certainly not been catechised in his youth and his grasp of the faith, therefore, had always been somewhat tenuous.  Did Anglican evangelicalism then strike him as being similar to Orthodoxy?  Well yes, mostly.  He only saw differences in the worship style which often set his teeth on edge.  Let’s face it.  He attended the evangelical Anglican Church for the sake of his wife and family.  When they stopped going, so did he.  There is only one God after all and this was just a different way of being a Christian, it seemed to him.  He did lament his stepson’s involvement in the Calvinist church because he could see how its refusal of human freedom and choice, its dark doctrines of divine election to salvation or damnation, did not feel right to him, but he couldn’t really say why. 

Did Mary his wife ever consider Orthodoxy when the lady Vicar arrived?  Well, no, why should she?  Her husband rarely spoke of his childhood faith and she concluded that it could not have meant much to him in that case, so why should she consider it?  John and Mary now spend a conventional Sunday together as most couples do in their street, getting up late, going to the gym occasionally, shopping at B&Q, taking a drive into the countryside; just the usual and normal things everyone does nowadays.  Both still consider themselves as Christians, but obviously not of the fanatical sort whom they blame, quite rightly, for destroying Ian’s piece of mind.  As for the two girls, well they eventually graduated and now have families of their own.  Churchgoing, however, has become completely alien to all their families with the rest.

So, does Orthodox Christianity matter to you?
Does it matter enough for you to find out about it in more depth?
Does it matter enough for you to practice it as faithfully as you can, notwithstanding the distractions of modern life?
Does it matter enough for you to stay loyal to this faith no matter what challenges are presented to it by both family life and society as a whole?

And here’s the challenging question …

In the absence of an Orthodox church nearby would you be prepared to pray at home rather than pray with the heterodox?

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The Womb and the Tomb

 

Icon of the Nativity compared with the Icon of the Resurrection

Left: Christ in the manger; Right: the Empty Tomb

No description of the Nativity Icon would be complete without mention of Jesus’ appearance in the manger.

It should be never forgotten that Jesus came to us in order to die – this was known by Him, at least, from the very beginning. Therefore, in Iconography, the manger in the Nativity Icon deliberately resembles a stone coffin, the swaddling clothes resemble a burial shroud, and the cave itself can even be said to prefigure Christ’s tomb.

With the side-by-side comparison shown above of the Icon of the Nativity with the Icon showing the Myrrh-bearing women discovering Jesus’ empty tomb, no more words are necessary. (1)

The Passion of Nativity

… Let us look more closely at the child in the relief.  “His tight swaddling clothes are evocative of burial wrappings.  In the byzantine tradition, there is an intentional connection between the swaddling clothes of the infant in a Nativity icon and the burial clothes of the Epitaphios (epi– upon; taphos- grave or tomb) icon which is venerated and anointed during Great Friday Vespers.  Also on Great Friday, the “soma” icon on the crucifix is taken down from the cross and shrouded in identical wrappings before it is processed and reposed in the sanctuary.”

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“…Note, as well, that the “manger” is a cave, a small hollow in a rock formation that mirrors Jesus’ tomb in the gospels.  In many icons, Jesus’ cradle is a stone box.  Who would lay a child in a coffin? What macabre motive would make an artist paint a baby as a mummy and give him a tomb as his nursery?  Indeed, the motive is not macabre, but joyful and eschatologically triumphant: we only understand the significance of the incarnation if we hold it in tension with Jesus’ saving death; we may not separate the two.  This also reminds us that the liturgical year commemorates events in the life of Jesus but it never parses the paschal mystery.”

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Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, and the oldest in the Holy Land (founded in 325)

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A virgin womb, conceiving thee, revealed thee;
a virgin tomb, receiving thee, concealed thee.

We glorify her from whom thou didst receive a beginning in time,
and we honour him that ministered to the end of thine earthly life for our sakes,
asking that through their prayers, O merciful Saviour,
we might be deemed worthy of thy Kingdom of the Heavens.

Theotokion on the Praises for the Feast of St. Joseph of Arimathea
Appendix to the July Menaion, Holy Transfiguration Monastery

 

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Church Of The Nativity Bethlehem Stable

All the eschatological themes of the Advent season converge in the Nativity tableau and are carried forward into Christmas.  This should not surprise us.  The birth of Christ and his salvific death form the cosmic fulcrum upon which the beam of human history rests, with creation and eschaton at each end.  In a nativity icon this is super concentrated.  Incarnation and eschaton are so ingeniously and inextricably intertwined that we might not even read “passion” in what is written in the icon unless we understand the symbolic significance of the iconographic elements.  The best known example of this is the gifts of the wise men: while gold and frankincense represent Jesus’ kingship and priesthood, respectively, myrrh, used for embalming, is a symbol of his death.

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When I look at a Nativity icon and I see a child embraced by death, and embracing death, I have at least an inkling of what Rilke was, perhaps, trying to convey in the first Duino Elegy:

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” (2)

 

(1) Posted on by 

(2) Posted at https://memoriadei.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/the-ox-the-ass-and-the-passion-of-the-nativity/

The Ass and the Ox

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Nativity of the Lord” Andrei Rublev 1405, Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow

As of today, I thought I might begin to concentrate on certain details of the Nativity iconography and explore their symbolism and theological significance in order to prepare my cave (a hermit as I am 😊) to receive the Word in the flesh.  My starting point will be a symbolic (and typological) analysis of the ox and the ass figures in the nativity iconography.

Generally speaking, the presence of any animals in the Nativity icon is in addition to any symbolic meaning a theological statement of restoration. It reminds us, I think, that all creation worships God ( the stars and the sun and even the dumb animals). That which was brought about by Adam’s transgression meant that the dominion he was given in Genesis over the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the animals on the land was corrupted, made incomplete and he started eating that which was originally meant for companionship. When the Word who becomes flesh  is born, He who made Heaven and Earth and all that is in it,  it is only fitting that representatives of His creation are there to worship and adore the mystery of the Incarnation.

 
Revelation 5:13                
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 
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Specifically now to the ox and the ass. “These two manger animals are ubiquitous in Nativity images.  They peer over the new-born Christ child in wonderment, usually with their muzzles close to the child, as if to warm him with their breath.  Their significance should be plain: The ass carries Jesus into Egypt, away from the murderous Herod who, like Pharoah, orders the slaughter of infants.  (The flight into Egypt in Matthew’s gospel is the first of many Jesus/Moses parallels.)  Later, the ass will carry him into the holy city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd: “Hossana!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The ass who greets the Lord at his birth is the same ass who bears him into Egypt and carries him to his death at Jerusalem where he is hailed as “king of Israel” but crucified as a common criminal.  The red ox stands as a stark and basic  symbol of Hebrew cultic sacrifice.” (1)

There is no ass or ox in the Biblical narratives of the birth of Christ.  Yet, besides the Christ Child himself, the ass and the ox are the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the nativity.  In fact the earliest example of a nativity known to us contains only the swaddled Christ in the manger flanked by the ox at his head and the ass at his feet.  David Clayton, on the New Liturgical Movement blog, has written a detailed piece on the subject, and I will go through the basics while adding a few more aspects he does not mention.

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Nativity scene on a 4th century sarcophagus from Italy

When reading comments on the nativity (for example in Ouspensky’s “The Meaning of Icons”) one finds that the inclusion of this detail is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah:

The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.

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Some apocryphal texts have the ass and the ox worshiping the Christ child, such as the gospel of pseudo-Matthew:

Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.”

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The Nativity – Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine
[Many thanks to Bill M. for the link and drawing attention to the look on the ox’s face 😊 The icons of St Catherine’s, being isolated and in dry desert conditions meant that their icons have survived remarkably well, making it is a treasure of pre-Iconoclast iconography] (2)

nativity9.jpgFreiburg, Couvent des Cordeliers / Franziskanerkloster, MS 9, fol. 11r. 

What though is the relationship between the ox and the ass, why are these animals paired together so?  We will often read that traditionally, the ox is seen as Israel, and the ass is seen as the Gentiles.  This comes from a very important distinction about the two animals.  The ox is a “clean” animal, and the ass is an “unclean” animal according to dietary proscription in the Old Testament.

Mixing the clean and the unclean is related very tightly to the mixing of Jews and Gentiles.  The clearest example of this is in St-Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean meats placed together, which signify the entry of Gentiles into the body of the Church.  Indeed there is a Mosaic law which I have never seen quoted in relation to the Nativity Icon, but which seems to hold one of the keys to the ass and the ox:

Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.

What is proscribed, the yoking of the clean and unclean, the bringing together of the “inside” and “outside” can only be accomplished without sin by the Christ, the incarnation of the Logos.  In fact, even St-Paul following this tradition, uses the same imagery to warn Christians not to be “yoked” with unbelievers.

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This brings out another meaning, which is related to the incarnation and its relation to universality of the Church.  The ass is a beast of burden, a “mindless” strength which was created to “carry” .  In this respect, the ass is a symbol of corporality itself.  One should not be surprised that the symbol of the unclean and “outer” is analogical to fallen corporal existence and sensuality. This can be seen so strongly in the hesychastic tradition in its relationship between the heart and the senses.  The “outer” part, corporality, the senses, the Gentile, are related to the garments of skin, which we have discussed before, and this periphery can be seen as protecting but also carrying what is precious, like the shell of the ark…

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Icon of the Nativity carved in linden by Jonathan Pageau

It therefore follows naturally that stories such as the talking ass of Balaam are seen as prefigurations of the incarnation in sources as early as St-Irenaeus, or that it is so important for Christ be found riding an ass (even in later Rabbinical Judaism, the ass and colt of Zecharia’s prophesy are seen as representing the Gentiles) .  These Old Testament images, like the joining of the ass and the ox in the icon of the Nativity, are symbolic of the joining of extremes, the union of the spiritual and corporal, the clean and unclean, the inside and outside and ultimately the uncreated and created in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. (3)

 

 

 

Sing Ye Carols!

 Carol Singers William Gunning Kind

 

Sing Ye Carols: An Interview with Hierodeacon Herman by  • November 24, 2015 

Hierodeacon Herman (Majkrzak), Chapel Music Director and Lecturer in Liturgical Music at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, has started a small ministry during this Nativity fast – a series of Facebook posts highlighting lesser-known hymns and carols from the Western tradition. You can enjoy his posts here: Fr. Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar. We thought this a good opportunity to ask him to share some thoughts on Western hymns and carols, and what role they can play in Orthodoxy.

A painting depicting traditional Christmas carolers in Greece

A. Gould: Father Herman, to begin please tell us about your Facebook page, “Fr Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar.”

Hdn Herman: Andrew, thanks for hosting me at Orthodox Arts Journal. I think many of your readers would be interested in checking out what I’m calling my “choral Advent calendar.” I’ve based the name for the page on the delightful old German Advent calendars where each day leading up to Christmas you open a little door that reveals a holy image or a scripture verse or the like. My page is the same idea, but each day it’s a link to a piece of choral music.  And with each day’s post, I include a description or commentary, and the text of the piece. My hope is that people will take this fast as an opportunity to listen to music attentively ­– i.e., will learn something about a piece before listening, and will listen to it with their undivided attention, while not doing anything else, and while reading along with the text.

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Most of the pieces I’m posting are from the repertoire of Western choral music, especially carols and hymns, the subject of this interview. I do occasionally post Orthodox liturgical music as well, and in any case the posts are following the Orthodox liturgical calendar throughout the fast. For those on the Old Calendar, I’ll be refreshing each post thirteen days later, so you can follow and be sync liturgically with your parish.

You don’t need to have a Facebook account to access the posts, but for those who aren’t on Facebook, I also have an email list – write the OAJ editor if you’d like to be added, and tell him whether you want the new calendar or the old calendar posts.

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A Gould: A lot of people, including Christians, tend to be fed up with Christmas music. It’s everywhere, in stores, in offices, and on the radio, and so much of it is cheap and just helps in the commercialization and secularization of this important Christian holy day. It can be easy to become cynical or jaded. You must have some thoughts on this, given how much you think about carols.

Hdn. Herman: Absolutely, Andrew. I think we should really make an effort not to be cynical about Christmas. The world has tried to spoil Christmas in so many ways, but we shouldn’t let that effort triumph in our own lives, in our own hearts.

I prefer to look at the presence of carols in stores and malls as one of the last vestiges of Christianity in the public space here in America, and I think we should value this and build on it. Yes, the carols are sometimes cheap and often annoying, but it’s not all “Jingle Bell Rock”! I’m always delighted when I go into a department store in 2015 and hear songs about Christ’s virgin birth! Even if, as is usually the case, I don’t like the musical arrangements, I’m still so happy to hear them. Some Christians complain when they start hearing carols and seeing Christmas decorations long before Christmas. Okay, maybe this is not ideal, but, you know, really I’d prefer to go into a store on November 1st and hear a song about Our Savior – or even Rudolph! – than a song about licentiousness, which is what we’re treated to the rest of the year.

Young adults today will probably be the last generation to have grown up somewhat familiar with a basic repertoire of a dozen or so famous carols: “The first Nowell,” “Hark, the herald-angels sing,” “Silent night,” “O come, all ye faithful,” “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and the like. For many people, memories of early childhood Christmases are some of the purest and happiest of their lives, even if mixed with avarice or bitterness surrounding gifts, and those memories are bound up with carols like these. This means that for the next fifty years or so, these carols will have the potential to connect to a very special part of people’s lives. Our task as Orthodox Christians in a society increasingly post-Christian, but still having these vestiges of Christian memory, is to elevate these carols, to help them be a window through which people can experience something beautiful, something peaceful, and have even just a glimmer of joy and gratitude. This is especially our job if we are musicians. We should organize concerts with carols, and go caroling in our neighborhoods or at local hospitals and nursing homes. Let’s not let the devil have Christmas. It doesn’t belong to him.

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A. Gould: You grew up as an Episcopalian, and you were an organist and singer in the Anglo-Catholic tradition before your conversion to Orthodoxy. How has your experience with Western liturgical music influenced your vocation as an Orthodox choir director?

Hdn Herman: Well, Andrew, when I think back to the time in my life, to early adolescence (not long before you and I first met), when I was moved to make a resolute commitment of my life to our Savior, Christ Jesus, it seems to me that it was liturgical music that the Lord used to open that door in my heart. Discovering the traditional canon of Western, and particularly English, church music inspired me to learn about and immerse myself in the more traditional forms of Western liturgy that that music was meant to accompany. So, for example, I will never forget the summer Sunday in 1991 or ’92 when for the first time I attended a solemn mass in the full Anglo-Catholic tradition. It’s a cliché, but it really was a life-changing experience to discover a much older, more full stream of liturgical tradition, largely unscathed by the banal impoverishments that the liturgical reform of the 60s had brought about in Western Christianity. I was twelve or thirteen, and I had discovered the joy of my life: traditional liturgical worship. It was traditional music that led me to take traditional liturgy seriously, and liturgy in turn inspired me to dip into theology in my early high school years. I read C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and other contemporary apologists, but then went further with Thomas Aquinas and collections of Patristic homilies. I even read a ten volume set of Anglican dogmatic theology by F.J. Hall. This all may seem far afield of your question, Andrew, but it’s not, really, because without this theological self-education I would probably never have become Orthodox. In my early college years I realized that I needed to have complete integrity and unanimity between these three great loves of my life: music, liturgy, and theology. I could not have one without the other two, and it is only in the Orthodox Church where they constitute an integral whole. I take my work as an Orthodox choir director seriously because I see what an irrevocable effect good church music had on me in middle school, and I think Orthodox church music has even greater potential to direct the lives of our young people today on the path of righteousness and salvation.

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A. Gould: It is often the experience of one who converts, that at first he feels it is a complete rupture – that nothing from his old ways are compatible with Orthodoxy. But over time, we mature, and come to understand that much of what we had known in the Western Church is highly sympathetic to Orthodoxy. And we start to see that the Western and Eastern traditions are not necessarily isolated alternatives, but rather are two related sisters in the Church’s history. Each has historically depended upon the other for inspiration, and they need to do so still, if liturgical art is to remain fresh and creative. This has been my experience since my conversion, and I wonder if yours has also followed this pattern?

Hdn Herman: I think you’ve put this very well, Andrew. This is a common path for converts, and I would even say it is a necessary path, first intentionally to distinguish yourself, to set yourself apart from what the service of reception of converts calls your “former delusion,” but then, perhaps years later, to go back and reacquaint yourself with these roots, viewing them with new, Orthodox eyes.

Yes, people who convert to Orthodoxy, especially from other Christian communities, should wholeheartedly immerse themselves in and be formed by the Orthodox tradition, not just in its dogmatic and moral teachings, but in its Eastern liturgical piety, its traditions of chant, iconography, and architecture, its ascetic disciplines, its monastic ethos. (And as an aside, to really do this well, I think you need to develop some measure of affection for and familiarity with one of the cultures from which Orthodoxy came to this country and to your parish. In my case that meant the culture and faith of Russia.) This is so important, because this is the path to making Orthodoxy your own: you are completely uprooted from your previous confession, and then you’re deeply planted in the soil of the Church. And I’d say that the new convert should not be too concerned with distinguishing between what is essential and what is incidental in Eastern Orthodox practice. (And to be clear, by incidental, I don’t mean insignificant.) Such distinctions are important, and will come with time and education, but new converts are not capable of making such distinctions, really, and if they try, they may become confused and perhaps be led astray.

But later, having undergone that clear separation and having internalized the ways of one’s new home, having laid a firm foundation for one’s new identity as an Orthodox Christian, one is then able to look at traditional Western Christianity with clearer vision and with more sympathetic eyes, and one sees that there is so much there that is beautiful and true and worthy of our close attention and admiration. You’re still aware of the problems, certainly, but you no longer fixate on them. And, yes, as you say, the more you learn about Church history, the more you see that, despite the Schism, despite the dogmatic divergences, East and West have never been two isolated, watertight compartments within Christianity. It is one common culture, with its roots in the Roman Empire. There are different emphases, of course, but the family resemblances are often quite charming.

Christmas carolers, Ukraine

A. Gould: Regarding Western hymns and carols, how would you characterize their strengths and weaknesses as a liturgical art? What do they do really well, and what do they offer us that may be lacking in the Eastern choral traditions?

Hdn Herman: That’s a huge question, Andrew. I’ll come at it from a few different angles.

Let me begin by clarifying that Western carols are not, technically, liturgical. Though often sung in Church, their origin is not found in prescribed liturgical texts or chant books, but rather they arise out of the spontaneous devotion of Christian people. And such extra-liturgical or, perhaps, paraliturgical singing exists within Orthodox cultures as well: one thinks especially of the famous Russian and Ukrainian Christmas carols, transplanted and sung to this day with such great fervor by Yup’ik Orthodox in Alaska, of the Arabic carol for Lazarus Saturday, “Rejoice, O Bethany,” or of the many carols from Greece or Serbia, including 20th-century compositions by St Nektarios of Aegina or St Nikolai of Zhicha. So I’d want to rephrase your question and make it less about East and West and more about liturgical and non-liturgical.

Put in that light, I think it’s really important for us to nurture extra-liturgical expressions of our Faith, and singing together about Christ and his Incarnation is one of the best ways of doing this I can think of. People who sing together about joyful things become joyful themselves. You and I did this for hours on end when we were teenagers, and I think this should be a regular part of the lives of all Orthodox children, youths, and grown-ups. Singing hymns and carols together is much better than making playlists of rock music on Spotify or playing video games! The one draws us into the embrace of a centuries-old Christian culture, the other conforms us to the world.

Koledari Christmas Carolers, Bulgaria

So, what extra-liturgical music should Orthodox be singing? For English-speaking Orthodox, the answer is obvious: we have a tradition ready to go, we just have to make it our own! And I think it’s wonderful when we as Orthodox say, “Everything, anywhere, that is good and true and beautiful belongs to Christ and belongs to His Church, and so we will preserve it and pass it on because it is, in fact, ours.” We are the custodians of all that is good in Western Christian culture, because we are Orthodox Christians who speak a Western language and who live in the West. That’s a serious responsibility, when you think about it, and unfortunately Western Christians, with some notable exceptions, are not taking their patrimony seriously! Isn’t it ironic that we as Orthodox might pick up and treasure the Western carol tradition just as so many Western Christian denominations are turning away from their own traditional music and embracing contemporary musical forms that are shallow by comparison?

Christmas carolers, Romania

To return to your question, I probably wouldn’t say that there’s anything lacking in the Eastern choral traditions for the context in which they originate. The liturgical hymnography and chanting of, say, Slavic or Romanian or Arabic lands is complemented by a culture of pious folk singing that brings the Faith into the home. These Eastern carols are often much simpler melodies than the liturgical chants of the Church, they are composed in meters and verses that are easy to learn and remember, and so have immediate popular appeal – and yet they are also suitable for more elaborate arrangements and for performance at a very high and nuanced artistic level.

 

All the same things can be said of Western carols. And for English-speaking Orthodox, English carols and hymns, whether for Christmas or other seasons of the Church year, give us the unique opportunity of hearing our faith sung in poems originally written in English, hearing our faith expressed in poetic and musical forms native to our culture and our language. This is something immensely valuable. This is something that really helps us make the Faith our own as English-speakers, and it’s something that helps us elevate our Anglo-American culture so that it partakes of the Spirit of the Church and the life of Christ. The same can certainly be said about, say, French- or German-speaking Orthodox and those respective carol traditions, but I’m speaking from my own experience and vantage point as an English-speaker.

A troupe of self-described 'Hipster Carolers' in New York City.

A. Gould: Can you give an example of a carol that expresses good theology in a uniquely Western way – a carol that is wholly sympathetic to Orthodoxy, but that could never have been written in the East?

Hdn Herman: Well, I’d hesitate to say what “could never have been written in the East.” Eastern hymnography encompasses a huge variety of themes and expressions, and of course the hymnography contained in the received texts of our service books is only a fraction of the hymnography composed in the Eastern Church.

But one can readily find Western hymns and carols that express perfectly Orthodox theology, and that do so in poetic forms more familiar to the Western ear. An example that comes to mind is the majestic hymn, Of the Father’s Heart Begottena translation of the fourth century Latin hymn, Corde Natus Ex Parentis, by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. With this and so many other early Latin hymns, not only is its content Orthodox, but so is its author, since Prudentius lived centuries before the Schism. The text has a simple, regular meter and rhyme scheme; the melody is solemn, yet lyrical and joyful – though a liturgical hymn, it demonstrates many carol-like qualities.

The text expounds the mystery of the Incarnation, beginning with the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father, moving on to the Creation of the world, and the foretelling by “seer and sybil” of Christ’s advent to bring salvation from the curse of sin and death, and arriving at the Incarnation itself, the birth of the eternal Son from his Virgin Mother. It moves forward into the future (in a verse unfortunately omitted in the linked recording), to sing of Christ’s Second Coming as Judge of creation, and concludes in an explosion of glorious praises by angels and men and all creation, singing with joy around God’s throne.

Of course, these are all themes we can find in Eastern hymnography, but perhaps what makes this hymn distinctly Western is its sweeping survey of the entire economy of salvation within one, long hymn. The focus is the Incarnation – this is a Christmas hymn – but it places that mystery in the context of the whole history of creation and beyond; indeed in its first verse it sings of Christ as the beginning and the end:

He is Alpha: from that Fountain,
All that is and hath been flows;
He is Omega, of all things
Yet to come the mystic Close,

thus, in just four pithy lines, drawing together the vast expanse of time and eternity. It does so with an allusion to the Book of Revelation (the Alpha and the Omega), which itself is uncommon in Eastern hymnography, since that book is not part of the lectionary of the Eastern Rite.

Christmas carolers, Ukraine

A. Gould: The English-language translations of Orthodox hymnography currently available are disappointing with regard to poetic language, and the tones to which they are usually sung are disappointing with regard to melody. Most of our hymnography, as sung in American churches, compares negatively to the elegance of great English hymns. Do you think that, over time, with better translation and better musical settings, it will be possible to sing Orthodox hymnography with this kind of poetic refinement and fitting melody?

Hdn Herman: Good questions. You’re asking both about the chant melodies used for our stichera, troparia, and other hymns, and also about the English translation of these texts. There’s not much I have to say about the melodies themselves. When sung beautifully, and in their most authentic forms, they are beautiful, and I don’t think inventing a new body of chant melodies ex nihilo would ever gain much traction. Whether working with Byzantine chant or one of the Slavic chant families, our job as choir directors and singers is to sing stichera sensitively and reverently. The temptation in Russian chant, certainly, is to make a caricature out of these sacred melodies, in each musical phrase racing through the recitation, and then dragging out the ending as if somehow to compensate for how fast one had just been singing. Often the hymn is not pointed well to begin with, with phrases that are too long to be sung meaningfully, or divided at the wrong part of the sentence, or with emphases put on unimportant words, where they could with slight adjustment be used to bring out more substantive words. If there is an area of Western church music that could inspire us to sing Russian chant more sensitively, it would be Anglican Chant, with its flexible, recitation-based melodies used by English cathedral choirs for the singing of Psalms. But one cannot simply imitate the style of Anglican Chant when singing Kievan Chant – the result could be quite comical. This is a difficult subject to articulate.

Malankara Orthodox Christmas Carolers in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

Regarding English translations, this is a can of worms, but impossible to avoid. The English language culturally is not in good shape at the beginning of the third millennium, alas. I’m reminded of a letter written by poet W.H. Auden to his parish priest (Auden was an Episcopalian) probably in the early 70s:

Our Church [i.e., the Anglican Church] has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

Well, lucky for us Orthodox, many of our translators did not feel they needed to “start from scratch,” but produced solid English translations that built on the wording and the spirit of Jacobean liturgical English. The difficulty is that neither the Prayer Book nor the Bible gives us models of how to render the florid rhetoric of Byzantine hymnography in English. I think that Metropolitan Kallistos’s translations (though some may disagree with certain word choices here and there, naturally), do the best job of any translation of bringing together the style of traditional liturgical English (admitting of some careful and limited modernization) and the text of Byzantine hymns. I wish he had gone on to complete Mother Mary’s draft of the Octoechos and Pentecostarion!

When we look to the tradition of the English translation of Latin carols and hymns, we see that they are almost always translated metrically, i.e., according to the original Latin meter, so that they can be sung to the same melody, which is composed to fit the text like hand in glove. This is also how the liturgical books prepared by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline translate Byzantine hymnography, because they intend them to be sung to Byzantine melodies composed for the Greek texts. But a metrical translation is always a paraphrase, and sometimes this can be problematic. In any case, when translating for Russian chant, fidelity to the Greek meter is not required, since Russian chant melodies are by nature expandable and contractible, so as to allow for more or fewer syllables per phrase, as needed.

In general, I would love to see a greater poetic sensitivity in our liturgical translations, but one that is rooted in the tradition of English scriptural and liturgical translation that stretches back to the sixteenth century—this too is part of our patrimony as English-speaking Orthodox! However, there are many who strongly disagree with me, thinking that we should create our own style of liturgical texts using 21st century literary English style as the starting point. I take Auden’s approach here: ours is not the right era for this, because we have lost that “instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.” By the way, this principle Auden articulates is nothing new, but was present even in the earliest liturgical translations from Greek to Latin. This has been demonstrated by the linguistic historian Christine Morhmann.

Carolers in Bucharest, Romania, 1929

A. Gould: Is there a way for Orthodox churches to incorporate Western hymnography into their worship? There has always been some paraliturgical music in Orthodox services – hymns that are commonly used in local traditions, but which do not appear in the service books. Why should English-speaking churches not use old English hymns as paraliturgical anthems? Can you give us your thoughts on this question, and maybe some practical suggestions?

Hdn Herman: I’d be very cautious about this, actually. There is not really any open slot in our services for paraliturgical hymns, with the possible exception of the time during the Communion of the clergy at Divine Liturgy. There are those who argue that only the prescribed Communion Psalm should be sung at this time, but given that so many of our people rarely attend Vespers and Matins, I often will sing stichera during Communion, rather than repeating Psalm 148 every Sunday. If paraliturgical hymns are sung during Communion, I believe they should only be hymns by Orthodox hymnographers, either ancient (including pre-Schism Western hymns), or modern.  After the dismissal of a service, as during the veneration of the Cross after Liturgy, I would be comfortable with later Western carols or hymns. I once saw a video of Christmas Liturgy from Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow in which they sang Russian translations of Western Christmas carols during the veneration of the Cross. (I specifically recall hearing “Angels we have heard on high…”) I think this is good.

 

Christmas Vespers at the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior, Moscow, 2013

A parish can also sing carols during coffee hour or parish meals, at Holy Supper on Christmas Eve, or following a class or lecture. And parishioners should organize carol sings in their homes too, as well as in neighborhoods, downtown shopping areas, and nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons. All these possibilities embody the goal of letting our devotion to God flow out of Church and into our daily lives. Families could sing a different carol together each night after dinner during the Nativity fast and up through the end of the festal season.

A project I’ve been thinking about for some time is to compile several dozen of the best Christmas carols (both familiar and less-well-known) for use by Orthodox communities, carefully choosing which versions of each carol to use, to bring out the richest content. So many Protestant hymnals, unfortunately, have meager selections, missing verses, or poor harmonizations, or have altered the words for political reasons… but at present, as a convenient resource, I recommend finding a used copy of the Hymnal 1940 from the Episcopal Church. It’s quite solid, and unlike most Protestant hymnals it includes many hymns from the pre-Schism West – the old Gregorian office hymns, many of which are quite ancient.

A. Gould: Father Herman, you’ve given our readers much to think about. Do you have any closing comments?

Hdn Herman: I do indeed, Andrew! You’ve got me on a roll. Just a few final words about music more generally, as it relates to the life of the spirit and the life of the Church.

Our culture is drowning in music; many people are to some extent addicted to having music playing in the background throughout their day, and much of that music does not edify but draws us away from Christ in subtle or sometimes blatant ways, to say nothing of the resulting absence of silence. With the choral advent calendar, I’m trying to give people an opportunity to be more intentional about their music, and to help folks find music which can warm their hearts and help them draw near to God.

Christmas carolers, Poland

Now, taking the next step, and not just listening to good, Christ-centered music, but singing it: this is really important for Orthodox Christians in America. Our young people especially should be singing much more than they are, both in Church and at home (and hopefully at school too). Parents with any musical ability should make this a regular part of their family time, and children with any musical ability should have the formal study of music, especially piano and singing, as a central part of their education – required, not optional.

Why do I insist on this? Not only because Orthodox Churches across North America are in desperately dire need of proficient singers and choirmasters, but also because this can be such an important element in basic human developing and flourishing. And it’s on this subject that I’ll close, leaving you with a few words by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) of Platina:

The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this – but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it – the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable …

Sometimes a spiritual father will deny his child the reading of some spiritual book and give him instead a novel of Dostoevsky or Dickens, or will encourage him to become familiar with certain kinds of classical music, not with any “aesthetic” purpose in mind – for one can be an “expert” in such matters and even be “emotionally well-developed” without the least interest in spiritual struggle, and that is also an unbalanced state – but solely to refine and form his soul and make it better disposed to understand genuine spiritual texts.

The entire article is well worth reading, but can best be summed up by the grace-filled words of St. Paul: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

So, thanks, again, Andrew, and may you and all your readers have a very blessed Nativity fast!

A. Gould: Thank you, Father Herman.

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal at http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/sing-ye-carols-an-interview-with-hierodeacon-herman/

Fr. Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar Curated daily posts of (mostly Western) choral music and carols for the Nativity Fast, Christmas, and Theophany, each with brief introduction and text. http://www.svots.edu/

 

An Icon Making An Icon!

Christ Pulls St-Peter from the Waters. Jonathan Pageau

Christ Pulls St-Peter from the Waters. Linden and gilding. 4′ x 5′. Carved by Jonathan Pageau.

Since I began icon carving full time 4 years ago now, I had a secret list of the things I wanted to make, certain objects and images that were dear to me.  To my own joy and surprise, I have been progressively checking off items from that list with ongoing commissions, making even those objects and icons I did not think could find patrons such as complex reliquarieswedding crownsopus sectile icons or the image of the Holy prophet Jonah.

One of the images I had secret hope of making is Christ pulling St-Peter out of the water. For those who have read some of my writings one can quickly see how it encompasses so much of my vision of the incarnation, of death, resurrection and the pastoral reminder on where to focus our eyes when advancing into the chaotic world.  So last year, when a patron commissioned this icon at a size of 4’ x 5’ for St. Peter Orthodox Church in Bonita Springs, Florida, I was ecstatic.   This is the biggest icon I have carved to date.

In working out the drawing for the icon carving, I based the composition on my favorite version of this event, a 12th century mosaic from Sicily.

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Many details are different, but the basic composition is the same. I reduced the size of the boat to make it less overwhelming and to fully have St-Peter under the boat.  I also wanted to make sure we could see at least the eyes of all the Apostles.  I changed Christ’s left hand so that instead of holding a scroll, it was placed in a position suggesting the upcoming motion, the rising of St-Peter.  I also added a few details, such as a dragon head on the boat and I changed the shape of the mast and sail to suggest a Chi-Ro.

Drawing process of St-Peter on water

One of the things that kept changing as I worked on the drawings was just how deep Peter was in the water.  The priest of the parish, fr. Hans Jacobse, commented that he really wanted the water to be high up on his body to give that sense of sinking, but this created some challenges for me because I still wanted us to see St-Peter.  Wood is generally opaque to say the least. In the mosaic version, there is wonderful use of transparency and so I began pondering just how it could be possible to at least suggest transparency in wood.

Final scaled drawing. The level of water on St-Peter will still change in the final carving.

Icon in process, attempting to find ways to show the transparency of water.

I wanted the composition of the water to say something about the event and so beyond suggestions of transparency to show that St-Peter is actually in the water, I also designed it so to have a wave wrapping around his right foot in an image of the Psalms:

The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. (Psalm 116:3)

The water under Christ’s feet in contrast seems to shoot out from under them, organized by their contact with them. I gilded some of the water to add to this sense of the organizing and transfiguring effect Christ has on creation.

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Visually, I was looking forward to taking further the experimentation in carving water I had begun in my icon of Jonah. I wanted to create a sense of almost overwhelming movement which would contrast with the vigorous yet safe relationship established between Christ and St-Peter. Christ holds St-Peter by a firm grip, reminding us of the grip Christ has on Adam in the icon of the resurrection. Their gazes are fixed on each other, Peter with a hint of surprise and Christ with calm compassion.

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When Christ appears to the Apostles floating at sea, the waters are rising in a tempest. Christ approaches them above the flood, mastering the chaos, the chaos of the primordial waters, the chaos of the passions, of doubt, of all that is in the world of death. St-Peter is the only one to dare walk out with Christ, but because of this boldness, when peering into the storm he panics and sinks. Which one of us has not experienced this? We can imagine St-Peter crying out:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. (Psalm 69: 1,2)

But the face of Christ appears to him through the waves and his hand reaches to catch him. We can hear St-Peter confess:

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psalm 40:2)

This is St-Peter, the son of Jonah, both the stable “rock” and the one who sinks, the bold fisherman who finds the gold coin in the fish’s mouth, but also that one in constant danger of being swallowed by the sea.

This is his story repeated over and over in the Gospels, the story of the one who recognized Jesus as Christ then immediately called out by Christ to “get behind me Satan”, the one who tells Christ he will never deny him then deny him three times as the three days of Jonah in the fish, the three days of Christ in the grave. To meditate on this cycle in the story of St-Peter is to pierce so many mysteries of the Church, so many signs of the times and so many cycles in our own lives.

What is the end of this, what is the end of this story? When Christ appears to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection (John 21), it is the same sea in which St-Peter sank when attempting to walk on water. St-Peter recognizes his Lord on the land, and this time he does not walk on the water. This time his boldness leads him to dive into the deep, to put on his garment and voluntarily plunge, then to be asked three times by Christ: “Peter, son of Jonah, do you love me?” It is not when we walk on the water that we are closest to Christ, but it is when our boldness serves humility. It is when our boldness leads us to die that we are closest to the image of Christ. What impossible thoughts to consider, what scandal it is to fathom such things?

Coming back to our icon, we can say without hesitating that the image of St-Peter being pulled out of the waters is an image of our salvation in so many ways, and I find great joy in having made it.  I hope it will be a blessing for the parish to which it is headed.

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Process of Icon Carving

 

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CommentsAndrew Gould A masterpiece of the highest order. Astonishing! My favorite detail is the Viking-like prow on the ship – a pagan monster fleeing the sanctification of the waters. And a bit of an iconographic curiosity – a wood carving depicting a wood carving.” John Tkachuk  An icon making an icon!

Source: Icon Carving of Christ Pulling St-Peter from the Water by  Orthodox Arts Journal http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org

Columba Sails East

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You say you are Orthodox? And what did you say your baptismal name was? I am a Northern Irish convert to Orthodoxy who regularly finds himself working and going to church in places which are much closer to the traditional heartland of eastern Christianity. So I am often asked, by gingerly Greeks or sceptical Serbs, about my path to Orthodoxy and in particular my patronal saint. When I give the answer, the scepticism sometimes deepens. And so – if the conversation is worth pursuing at all – I find myself attempting to explain the Christian heritage of the place where I grew up, and my own relationship to that place. Sometimes people are interested; sometimes I can watch their eyes glaze over. But since my story is the story of many western Orthodox Christians, I shall try telling it in print.

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St Columba’s Bay, Iona

When I had the joy of being received into the Orthodox Church just over seven years ago, I took the name of Columba, the saint of Ireland andenlightener of Scotland. The process whereby priest and catechumen settle on a name is always a mysterious one; but in my case the decision to accept the name and seek the protecting guidance of Columba seemed to accord well with my own cultural origins; and also with the calling I had felt, however dimly, to another Kingdom, in which all national and cultural differences are set aside.  …

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Columba and the other great saints of the early Christian West are part of the common heritage of the undivided Church, and so they have a well-deserved place among the treasures of Orthodoxy. But for good reason, people from the old Orthodox world are reluctant to be taught new tricks by upstart converts from strange countries; so more than once I found myself put down rather sharply. The other difficulty I encountered was with western Christians: “We know the Roman Catholics have an interest in the early Celtic Church,” they would say, “and so do the Scottish Presbyterians and the Anglicans – but what possible connection can there be between Gaelic saints like Columba and the eastern Orthodox?”

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… But is Orthodoxy simply one among many competitors for a slice of the Columba heritage? Reading the ecclesiastical history of the British Isles in the 19th century, you can trace the almost comical way in which one Christian denomination after another tried to lay claim to the saintly enlightener of Scotland. Roman Catholics tried to proclaim Columba as a loyal servant of the Pope, while the non-conformists stressed the differences of practice between Rome and the early Celtic Church, making the saint into an early anti-Papist hero. In the 20th century, a charismatic Presbyterian churchman, George McLeod, founded a community on Columba’s island which modelled itself on the saint’s gritty practicality: it was supposed to combine religious practice with engagement with the problems of the world at its most sordid and grimy.

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 Since then, the Iona community has become inter denominational and, from an Orthodox perspective, far more political than spiritual. There is also an Anglican retreat house on the island and as of quite recently, a Roman Catholic one. So are the Orthodox, who have been organizing pilgrimages to Iona since 1997, simply johnniescome-lately who want to plant their own flag on Columba’s Iona, along with all the others? And where do the Orthodox stand in the contest between many different constituencies (by no means all religious) to claim a piece of Columba’s heritage? Ecologists call him an early green, Scottish nationalists call him a proto-patriot, feminists see him and the Celtic Church as pioneers of gender equality. So does it make sense, then, for an Orthodox Christian to ask: which is “our bit” of Saint Columba?

In the end, it is only the saint himself who can answer that question. …
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For the whole article  by Columba Bruce Clark, secretary of the Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona, and a senior journalist for The Economist, go to http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_17/Columba_Sails_East.pdf

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For Celtic Orthodoxy the real ‘authority’ is Father Seraphim and his monastery blog at http://www.mullmonastery.com/page/1/?s=St+Columba  Follow his struggles to found Mull Monastery, the first Orthodox monastery in the Hebrides in over a millennium.

 

An Ineffable Fragrance

It is impossible to describe how exquisite and noble are the podvizhniki![1] These people—although they bear the traces of harsh struggles, although their bodies are so withered and emaciated—have a fragrance and grace imprinted on their wondrous souls.

1976. The month of August—July 22 Old Style. The Altar Feast (Panegyr) of St. Mary Magdalene in Simonopetra. How they love this saint in her monastery! Her left hand is kept here—her wrist, palm, and fingers—with the skin and tendons. Its temperature holds steadily at 98.6 °F/37° C—proof that this is the hand of a living witness of the Resurrected Christ, living proof of the fact that “death hath no more dominion over” her, either (Rom. 6:9).

At the All-Night Vigil[2], they showed me a stasidion[3] practically in the center. Next to me there was a grey-haired little starets.[4] He stood as straight as a candle, without stirring. During the course of the service he weakened—he was obviously tired. Most likely, he was sleeping. But not relaxed as people usually sleep. His state was distinct and interesting: his head was leaning on his hand, his eyes almost shut. From time to time you could hear him snore a little, gently and peacefully. But every time the singers would make a mistake, he would come into action and without delay correct it. And then return to … his rest. “The body sleeps out of nature’s need, but his heart keeps awake out of its great love.” And truly, his mind keeps vigil. This man, it seems, lives in another world.

We came to the exapostilarion.[5] All the fathers stood, took off their skufias,[6] and bowed low when the serving priest performed the litany over the relics of the great saint and protectress of the monastery, which were lying on a silver tray. Soon the veneration began—I was stunned… I watched what the others did, and I felt that I wasn’t with them. I tried to understand what to do and how to do it correctly, but I couldn’t touch the secret. Everyone around me, I felt, was experiencing an event that I had no idea about. The choir intensified the celebration. The monks showed by their whole appearance that they were experiencing something the likes of which I could not perceive. The only thing that I was able to do was to follow what was going on—superficially and with curiosity. Soon the starets standing next to me left his place and goes in his turn up to the relics. Making three prostrations, he kissed them, was anointed by the priest, and with deep emotion he returned to his stasidion.

“You go, too,” he says to me, “don’t be shy—today the Saint is fragrant. Receive some of her grace.”

I did what he said and went up to the relics. This is what, apart from everything else, the others had done, too. But my doubts stayed with me. I didn’t particularly believe in all this. I went up in a reverie. And I was astonished by the fragrance. I had an insatiable desire to confirm the statement of this fact from an investigative point of view and to venerate the relics again. But I felt awkward—it was an inappropriate time for experiments! I returned to my place—physically—but mentally I stayed with the Saint. My questions multiplied, but my faith did not increase. It was the “sign” that I had been asking for, but it wasn’t the “sign” that I needed. I couldn’t believe in it, but again, I couldn’t imagine that the monks were lying. They had such pure countenances, and they experienced what was going on without reasoning or arguments. I had no reason to suspect them of lying.

“Geronda[7], how does this happen?” I asked. “Maybe out of piety the fathers sprinkled a little perfume? Or are the relics themselves fragrant?”

“Here reverence is ruined as soon as you sprinkle perfume. Reverence is increased when you receive the ineffable fragrance in simplicity. The Holy Mountain is full of such occurrences.”

“What does ‘ineffable fragrance’ mean?”

“If we sprinkled a little perfume from a perfume store, then it would be “fragrance.” Now, when we don’t sprinkle anything but the fragrance pours out all by itself, that is called ‘ineffable fragrance’.

I bowed and kissed his hand. He himself also was fragrant, as if he had been handling incense. The all-night vigil continued—it lasted twelve hours.

A monk whom I knew came up to me:

“Did you get a blessing from Elder Arsenios?”

“Who is that?” I asked, not having any idea who he was referring to.

“The little old man who was standing next to you.”

“The little old man who was sleeping next to me,” I said to myself.

“He has the ‘gift of not washing’, added the monk. “It has already been ten years since he has washed his face and he is fragrant all over. He is as pure as a tear. He lives in Kalamitse, in a cell alone, an hour and a half walk from here. Run, before he leaves!”

I did not catch up with him. He had withdrawn to his cell before the beginning of the festive trapeza. He was filled with the Divine service. He didn’t need food or words in order to fill his soul. He stood, sat, drifted off for twelve hours, and still every second breathed in the sweetness of the all-night vigil. He hath chosen the good part, which will not be taken awayfrom him (Luke 10:42).

From: A Still Small Voice by Metropolitan Nicholas of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, Phoni avras leptis, Athens 2006, pp. 139–144. Translated from the Russian version on Pravoslavie.ru.

Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki
Translation by Dimitra Dwelley

[1] Podvizhnik: a “spiritual athlete,” one who struggles spiritually, takes on podvigs. Podvig – a difficult spiritual task taken on voluntarily.—Trans.

[2] Agrypnia: the very long Divine service celebrated with great solemnity on Athos on Sundays, great feasts and feasts of the saints in whose honor churches are named, and likewise on days commemorating particularly revered saints.

[3] Stasidion: in Orthodox monasteries, a special wooden chair with high armrests and a seat that can be lifted up out of the way, so that a monk can stand up during the long vigils while being able to rest his arms on the armrests. When it is allowed or necessary out of weakness, the seat may be folded down so he may sit. —Trans.

[4] starets (here, “starchik”, an affectionate form): an elder, usually monastic, who through long experience, obedience, spiritual struggles, love and humility is given special spiritual gifts and to whom others come for spiritual guidance. —Trans.

[5] The Dismissal Hymn, the troparion that follows the Canon at Matins, near the end of the service. Sometimes called svetilen/photogogikon, because it sings of Christ the Light of the world. It is connected with the Matins Gospel.

[6] Skufia: priest’s or monastic’s hat.

[7] Geronda: Greek for “elder” or “starets.”

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Who is Metropolitan Nikolaos?
The Metropolitan of Messogea and Lavreotiki, Nikolaos, was born on April 13th 1954 in Thessaloniki, Greece. He studied physics at the University of Thessaloniki. He continued his studies at Harvard and MIT (USA) where he obtained postgraduate degrees and doctorates. He worked as a researcher and research assistant in the laboratory of angiology of the New England Deaconess Hospital (U.S.). At the same time he was a scientific associate of the United States Company NASA and the company Arthur D. Little.
He taught courses at Harvard and M.I.T, the Medical School of University of Crete and the Medical School of Athens University. He studied theology at the Theological School of the Holy Cross in Boston in the United States and was named honorary student of the Theological School of the University. He was the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and the President of the Synodical Bioethics Committee of the Church of Greece. He spent two years on Mount Athos, after which he became a monk on March 18, 1989 at the Holy Stomiou Konitsis Monastery, and the next day he was ordained deacon and then priest on September 10th of that year. Later he entered into the Holy Monastery of Simonopetra. Between 1990 and 2004 he served as a parish priest to the Athonite dependency (Metohion) of the Saviour’s Ascension (Simonopetra Monastery) in Byrona, a suburb of Athens. He was elected Metropolitan of Mesogaias and Lavreotikis on April 26th 2004. Listen to him at a recent Symposium at Madingley Hall, Cambridge https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POCEGvMRGeA