Audio length: 58:29 minutes
Transcript published: November 10, 2010
Archpriest Michael Oleksa speaks on Orthodox cultures at Orthodox Education Day at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.
Father Chad Hatfield: I am Father Chad Hatfield, I am the Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s, and again, I want to welcome you all to this beautiful day of celebration, our Orthodox Education Day. With the Pochaev icon visiting our campus, the Mother of God has truly blessed us with blue sky and a multitude of wonderful activities.
We are about to hear our keynote speaker for this year’s Education Day. We do everything at St. Vladimir’s these days by committee—sometimes by committee, and subcommittee, and subcommittee of the subcommittee, and by following that process we came to a full agreement on this year’s theme, which is, Many Cultures, One Faith.
Some folks have said to me today, it is a little more of a carnival atmosphere, and I do not know about you, but I like carnivals. We do have dancing and other things, like food, that do remind us that Orthodoxy is a very broad, catholic faith. There is no part of humanity which is excluded from embracing the fullness of the faith. The wonderful thing about this, then, is it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the fact that our Orthodox faith is not passed on to us through our DNA. It is something that we acquire through ascetical exercise, through prayer, through fasting, through almsgiving. It is something that we do, not as our religion of choice, but as the way we live our life. It is who we are.
And when it came time for all of these various committees and their subcommittees, and whatever else, to reflect upon who would be the perfect keynote speaker for such a theme, there was instant agreement. We all said, at the same time, we need Father Michael Oleksa, and he graciously agreed to come down to us. It was my joy to serve the brother priests in the Diocese of Alaska with Father Michael.
In one sense I am his successor, because he was once the Dean of St. Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak, and I was once the Dean of St. Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak. Our wives like each other like sisters, and so there is a kind of familiar bond that happens with anyone who serves in the Dioceses of Alaska, whether you are there or not. There is something that happens by the Grace Divine, and it is a thing that we all cherish.
One of the blessings that Alaska gives the rest of the Church is that it is one of those places where Orthodoxy is truly part of the culture, where it is not something as a foreign object that has been injected in. When those first missionaries arrived, it was their stated goal not to make little Russians out of those whom they called The Americans, but to plant Orthodoxy within that culture, and that is what has happened there.
Father Michael, of course, is a world-renowned missiologist. We are developing a missiology program here at the seminary, which is in the very neophyte stages, but certainly, Father Michael will be part of how we develop this program, eventually, to an actual Master of Arts in the field of Missiology.
Only last week, I had an email from a young preacher, a missiologist in Australia, and he asked me if I could name five top Orthodox missiologists. Of course, at the top of the list, would go Father Michael. Missiology is an interesting field. We could certainly trace it to the Book of Acts, but you know, when you type it in on your keyboard, if you have spellcheck, it will say you have a misspelled word.
Missiology is sort of at the place where theology was 50 years ago. It is still acquiring its niche amongst other academics. So this is an education day and we are to be educated by one of the best missiologists in the field of Orthodoxy and culture, the author of numerous books and articles, including two published by SVS Press, which are available today: Orthodox Alaska and Alaskan Orthodox Spirituality, which is a fairly new reprint that we have, and Father Michael will be happy to sign it, of course, for a fee, with checks made out to St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary. (laughter)
Please welcome a brother whom I love dearly, Father Michael Oleksa.
Father Michael Oleksa: Well, I must say, thank you very much, Father Chad, for that gracious introduction, but when I left St. Vladimir’s Seminary, after my first full year here, I had no idea I was going off to become any kind of missiologist. It is an interesting story, and I will begin there, because I am basically just a storyteller, and I think that is what mission is, the telling of stories. Our Lord dedicated most of His teaching ministry to the telling of parables and stories, and so I think that has sort of been part of our job since the beginning, the telling of stories.
I had, in early childhood, a fascination with Native Americans. When I was 3, 4, 5 years old, people would ask me, “What do you want to be, Michael, when you grow up?” And I would say, “an Indian.” Being of Ukrainian and Pennsylvania Dutch background, my mother did her best to convince me that that was simply not possible.
I put those ambitions aside and came here to St. Vladimir’s for my first visit as a college student in what we called the new dorm. It is now an old building, not even used for housing. We had a student, a senior, about to graduate, with a map of Alaska on his wall, covered with pins. I did not know if he was doing voodoo on the state, or about to invade it.
I asked him, “What is this map, and why the pins?” He said, “These are our parishes: The Eskimos, the Indians, the Aleuts.” I said, “Wait a minute, there are Native Americans who are Orthodox Christians?” I had not heard about this, I had not put two and two together. He said, “Of course, don’t you remember? Alaska was part of the Russian Empire for 127 years.”
In Pennsylvania, that historical event took up two paragraphs in fifth grade. It had passed out of my memory. “This I have got to see,” I decided. “Some day, these two great interests of my life, the Church, and Native Americans, converging? I have got to see this for myself some day.”
That was 1966. Three years later, as a student here, of St. Vladimir’s, a letter came, not to me, but to another student. It went something like this: “We here in this village have been Orthodox Christians since the time of St. Herman. We have not had a resident pastor since his death (which was 1837, if you recall). We have been waiting patiently for a priest. We wrote to the bishop three years ago and asked for one. He said, ‘I cannot send you a priest, you have no house.’
“So we took an older house from our community and we put in the wiring and the plumbing, and we wrote and said: ‘We have a house, send us a priest.’ The bishop wrote back, ‘How can I send you a priest? You have no salary. There is no means of support.’ So at the end of the last fishing season we took a collection, and now we have several thousands of dollars in the bank, and we can support a priest for at least a year—‘We can get things started, send us a priest!’ The bishop wrote back, ‘I have to come clean. I don’t really have a priest to send.’ They wrote back: ‘In that case, send us someone who will be a priest.’”
That letter was forwarded here to a particular student, who was an inveterate New Yorker. I had a roommate just like him at Georgetown. His idea of the West was New Jersey, and he saw no reason, ever, to go there—the city was sufficient. I was interested in, needless to say, going to Alaska. He asked, first, his roommates, one of whom was Ted Bazil, by the way, “You want to go to Alaska? You want to go to Alaska?” He did not know I had been eager to go to Alaska for years. He handed me this letter, and two weeks later, I was there, and the rest is history. It has been 40 years now.
I got to Kodiak, and it was one of the most extraordinary journeys, though we do not have to go into the geography of it all. We took off in a plane called a Grumman Goose. A Grumman Goose has two engines, has wheels, and also pontoons. It can land on water, take off on water, land on land, and take off from land. We waddled off the beach and belly-flopped into the ocean, the two propellers got going and we eventually took off. We landed on the beach in front of the village, and belly-flopped down into the water. The two engines kept it going enough to waddle onto the shore, and there I was: Old Harbor Alaska, May, 1970.
Hundreds of kids gathered around me. I was the first guy, probably, from that far away, to ever come from that direction. The Russians had come from the other side in boats. I remember noting, though I don’t think I was disappointed, that all the kids spoke English. All the kids were wearing Nike Keds. It was cold, they were wearing Eddie Bauer parkas. They were eating pizza. They all spoke English. The cultural difference between myself and them was not at all pronounced. I was the only one in 4th century attire. (laughter)
But as I came to reside in that village over the next decade or so, I came to this conclusion, and it is my main point for the whole afternoon: My students did not see the world the same way I did. That is very hard to detect when they are so much like you. It took a lot of years to piece it together, but it is what I present to you as my first definition of what a culture is. A culture is a way of seeing the world, and there isan Orthodox way of seeing the world.
When we talk about one faith, I think this is where we have to start. We, as Orthodox Christians, regardless of national background, regardless of language, regardless of nationality or ethnic histories, do have an Orthodox way of seeing the world. Everything we do in the Church—our prayer, our fasting, our feast days, our holidays, everything we do in church school, every sermon, every hymn, every prayer, is geared to passing on that Orthodox way of seeing to the next generation, and to anybody else who wants to join us, who is interested.
Let me explain this idea of a culture as a way of seeing, because here is the problem: You cannot see your own culture. If it is the way you see, then you cannot see it. It is like someone trying to examine their eyeglasses while they are still wearing them.
A better metaphor would be something like this: I have to give credit here to C.S. Lewis who writes in an essay called, Meditations in a Tool Shed. He was not talking about culture, but I am adapting it to my purposes. He says in this essay, “I went to my tool shed this afternoon on a sunny day (like we have now in Crestwood), and I closed the door behind me, and at first I couldn’t see a thing. My eyes had not yet adjusted from the brightness outside to the darkness within. What I could see very clearly,” he says, “were the shafts of light coming through the cracks in the ceiling.”
Many of us have had this same kind of experience. You see that beam of light right in front of you, and you can see every particle of dust there in that brightness. You cannot see the shed, though, as soon as you have stepped into it. You step into that beam of light, and your whole perspective changes. While you are in the beam of light, you cannot see the beam of light. When you are in the beam of light, you cannot see the shed.
What do you see? You see the world beyond. Stepping into the beam of light, instead of looking at it, you see the world outside, you see the tree that overhangs that corner of the shed. You see the blue sky and the white clouds, and 93 million miles away you can see the sun, but when you are in the beam of light, you cannot see the beam of light.
A culture is a way of seeing, but while you are in it, you do not notice it. You do not know how American you are until you leave the country. It took Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman, to tell Americans what it meant to be American, because no American could have written that book.
For about 10 years I was looking at Native Alaskan culture, but I had to make the effort of moving out of my way of seeing, and stepping into theirs. I cannot say I have made a 100% transition, but I can sort of peek into this one, and get back into my own, and I can compare and contrast them. That has been, really, my life—to try, as an Alaskan Orthodox priest, to convey what you see when you are in the Aleut or the Yupic Eskimos or the Tlingit Indian beam of light and how that is different from the Pennsylvania way of seeing that I left behind. It is different. But you have to get out of your own and into the other.
I started by saying, however, that I believe that we have a common Orthodox way of seeing. What do I mean by that? It does not matter what ethnic background, it does not matter how long you have been Orthodox—a thousand generations, or one. We have an Orthodox way of seeing, and it is something that the Church conveys to us, as I mentioned, in all the things that the Church gives us, but especially Holy Week and Pascha.
This is what I posit to you this afternoon, as the very definition and goal of Orthodox education. We spend a lot of time preaching, we spend a lot of time praying, we spend a lot of time fasting, but none of those things are the goal. What is the goal? It is something we cannot express in words or we could just tell you. What is the goal, of everything we are doing in the Church?
You cannot put it into words, but I think when we start to talk about it, it comes down to something like this: You are in Church, Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, Great and Holy Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, sometime during those sacred Holy Days. Maybe it is Pascha, itself, maybe during Bright Week. All of a sudden, if you are the priest, if you are in the choir, if you are a reader, something happens. You cannot speak anymore. You cannot sing anymore. You are so overwhelmed with a sense of love, joy, peace, beauty and holiness that it overwhelms you and overcomes you. If you had to speak, if you had to continue to sing, it feels like you would just burst into tears.
Do you know what I am talking about? I think every Orthodox Christian I have ever asked that question says, “Yes.” But we do not talk about it, do we? If we said to our neighbor, “Did you get it?” They would say, “No.” Because it never happens to any two people, I think, at exactly the same time. And if you tried to talk about it, people would say, “Well, you are crazy.”
I think that is why, at the end of St. Mark’s gospel, the women are told to go tell everybody what has happened and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid. What were they afraid of? They were afraid people were going to say, “You are out of your mind. That does not make any sense. We have no idea what you are talking about.”
So this is our little Orthodox secret, isn’t it? We all have this experience, but we never talk about it. But ultimately, that is what it is all about. There is no way to provoke it. There is no way to instill it. In fact, it would be completely artificial if we tried to emotionally stir people up, because then it would be completely man-made. It is a sudden, unexpected gift.
I once met a kid, a teenager, who was 16 at the time, I remember that, who waited after a weekday liturgy where there were not very many people, and not very many singers, it was not an overwhelmingly beautiful liturgy, it was a kind of everyday, one could say almost normal, if there is such a thing, celebration of the liturgy. He waited for me to leave the altar and afterward he came up to me and said, “Father, I have to tell you something.”
What was it? He said, “From the beginning of the liturgy, from the time you said, ‘Blessed is the Kingdom,’ to the very end, to the final amen, I do not know how to say this, but I was overcome with such an experience of joy that if I would have had to speak, I would have burst into tears.” I said, “When did you say this experience started?” He said, “At the beginning of the liturgy.” “And when did it end?” “An hour-and-a-half later.” I said, “That is extraordinary. I have had moments of this, but an hour-and-a-half? Isn’t that amazing?” He said, “But that is a confirmation of everything I learned in Church school, and everything anyone has every taught me or preached. I know it is real.” No one induced it, no one provoked it. It was not artificially stirred up. It was a gift. It turns out that young man had a lot of difficult and painful trials ahead of him years later. God gave him that experience for that long of a time so that he would be able to get through those difficult years.
But this is our Orthodox culture, our way of seeing the world, because once you have had that experience, everything else falls into place, doesn’t it? I remember having that experience overwhelmingly here at my first Pascha when I was still in college and I came as a college student to the chapel that no longer exists, but the experience is there forever. Once you have had it, it is an eternal event.
I think people come to church, I knew people in Kodiak, certainly, who went to church and tried to talk about this, but because there are no words for it, they would say, “I expect at least a moment of that every Sunday, and when it doesn’t happen, I am disappointed, but I come back next Sunday in the hope.” I think even Mother Theresa mentioned having this experience for one week in her life, and never having it again. But having it once is enough. It grounds you.
Faith is loyalty, or faithfulness, to that experience, and not explaining it away. That is why faith is a virtue. I am convinced God, in His own way, touches each of us with precisely that experience, whether it is in church or someplace else, and then we all have to make up our mind, “Was that real? Or was that indigestion?”
There is a not too great movie called Grand Canyon, in which Steve Martin, who usually plays a comic role, plays, in this particular movie, the role of a serious movie producer. He is making millions, he is fantastically wealthy, but he is making horrible, violent films. Then one day, in this film, he gets himself mugged and becomes the victim of violence. One of his friends, who has never really liked any of his movies much anyway, comes to visit him as he is convalescing. He is sitting up in his hospital bed, and the beautiful sunlight is streaming in and he is speaking almost in Elizabethan English. He has seen the light.
In other words, what has happened in Orthodox terms is, he has had one of those moments of joy, peace, and all the rest, and he is overwhelmed, and he almost cannot speak, and he says, “Everything I have ever done is garbage. Nothing I have ever done is worth anything.” It is a complete repentance, precisely because he sees his life in the light of that experience. “I am going to have to change everything,” he says.
Weeks later, as the movie progresses, this same woman is visiting him at his Hollywood mansion and he is describing his next, even worse, movie. And she reminds him about the experience he had in the hospital. He says, “Oh that, I must have been delirious.” He had to explain it away because if he took it seriously, everything had to change.
Those of us who have had this experience as Orthodox Christians, overwhelmingly, in the Church, and overwhelmingly, in the context of worship, we know what happened to that guy in that hospital bed, because we look forward to it, and we cannot provoke it, and we cannot induce it, but we have had it. That is our culture. Our way of seeing the world derives from that overwhelming experience of the love, joy, and peace of the Holy Spirit, given to us, unexpected, undeserved, and unprovoked, but we know it is true.
Everything we do as religious education, is not so much to induce that, because that it impossible, but I would put it this way, it is sort of to put ourselves in alignment with it, so that God, if He so chooses, can grant it to us. He cannot grant it to us if we stay home Sunday morning reading the Sunday paper. That will not put us in that alignment. You see, we have to get out of bed, we have to be there, we have to be attentively participating in the worship of the Church, and then it just happens.
It is God’s free gift to us, and we all know what that means, and it seems that we have it more collectively, more of us at pretty much the same time during Holy Week and Pascha. That is when we know it. That is when it hits. That is when the alignment for hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians happens simultaneously. That is our culture. That is the faith that unites us.
At that same time, we have our own, as we are celebrating today, individual, national, and ethnic cultures, sort of a different definition of culture. I have been talking about this for some years. The first definition of culture, the way you see the world—that is what makes us Orthodox.
But there is another definition of culture. I will not spend too much time on it, but when I teach this class at the university, I give my classes three definitions of culture. The second one is that culture is the ballgame of life as you understand and play it. I realized, growing up in Pennsylvania, as my mother was of German and Pennsylvania Dutch background, and my father of Slavic Carpatho-Russian background, that they played the game of life by different rules.
It led to some conflicts at times. For example: Some ballgames have a clock. They are timed. You know what I mean? Baseball does not have one, but basketball does, football does, hockey does. The clock is part of the game. You call time-out as part of the strategy, and the clock determines who wins. Whoever has the most points when the clock runs out wins the ballgame, so the clock is an integral part of the game, itself.
There are cultures like that. My mother’s German culture was like that. Her great-grandmother left Germany 100 years ago, and brought with her one family heirloom we still have—a grandfather clock. It chimes every 15 minutes. In this culture, or in this ballgame, the clock is part of the game. Being late is a serious violation of the ballgame rules. Late is wrong. Late is inconsiderate. Late is sinful. Peoples’ salvation becomes endangered by lateness. Never be late. This is drilled into you in that culture. Then you go to Germany and you meet 80 million people who believe the same thing.
I was in Germany not too long ago. I had to buy a ticket from the Eastern Frontier near the Polish border to travel to a different community, a small village on the Dutch border. In other words, cross the whole country, transferring from a small place to a larger, to a very big one, and then back down again, to a very small one. I went to the cashier, I do not speak much German, and to speak to the lady, I wrote it down.
She gave me a ticket. It was a long perforated thing with about seven different parts. And I looked through it, and there in the middle, I noticed I had three minutes between the transfer from one train to another. I went back to the lady and pointed to this and said, “Nicht gut.” She immediately disagreed. “Ist gut!”
Now, we could not debate this in German, because my German was not adequate, and her English was not much better, but she got out of her kiosk and she inacted it. She said:
“Yes, I have two bags.”
“Oh, ist gut. Zug kommt (train come).
“Ya.” (I got that.)
“Und you, mit baggage, you go. Ein, zwei, drei, vier, und shtop. Anderen zug kommt (other train come) in Bohnhoff, ya. Oooo-pen, und you go. Eins, zwei, drei, you go. Ist gut, ist gut.”
What she was showing me, that I could not read in the German text, was that my arriving train and my connecting train were on the same platform, so all I really had to do is get off, make five steps, wait for the second train, the doors would open, provided, of course, the two trains arrived exactly on schedule but it’s Germany! Of course, they do! Being on time is almost a national obsession, it is the ballgame of life, as that culture understands and plays it.
That is the way my mother understood appointments, schedules, being on time. An appointment meant no later than, and it was always better to be a little early, because late is “no gut.” Right? My father did not play the same ballgame. My father, as I said, was of Slavic descent. My Ukrainian grandmother did not have a grandfather clock in her house. They were rural people. Rural people do not believe the ballgame of life is timed. Not all ballgames have clocks. Baseball doesn’t, tennis doesn’t, golf doesn’t. In fact, most ballgames do not have clocks. In that culture, the basic unit of time is not the hour or the minute.
By the way, who gave us that concept? Who invented the 60-second minute and the 60-minute hour, and the 24-hour day? The Babylonians. It is something else we can blame the Iraqis for. And why? Because they lived in cities, and if you wanted to meet your friend in a community of 80,000 people, you have to arrange ahead of time. “I will meet you next Tuesday at Fred’s Restaurant.” But you had to have the concept and the word for Tuesday, and 2:00 in your vocabulary. Everybody knew where Fred’s was, but in a village, there is no such need.
I have lived in towns in Alaska, some of them with 200, at the most 300, people. If you want to see somebody it is quite easy. You walk out your door, you walk over to their house, and if they are not home, they cannot be far away. The basic unit of time is the day. The sun comes up and the sun goes down.
On a farm, or in a small village, you say to Grandpa, “What are you going to do tomorrow, Grandpa?” He says, “I am going hunting.” He is going hunting—all day. He is going fishing—all day. He is plowing the field—all day. He is painting the barn—all day. The basic unit of time is the day. So if it happened that day it was on time. (laughter)
I think that was my father’s idea of on time. Now, my mother considered this a personality flaw. I could call home from Alaska any given day, ring, ring, “Hi Mom.” It was always mom, my father never answered the phone, and on weekends, he did not put his hearing aid on, so he did not even hear it ring.
“Oh, hi Michael, how are you?”
“I’m fine, how are you? Blah, blah, blah. How’s Dad?”
“What’s the matter, Mom?”
“He had a doctor’s appointment this week.”
“Was he sick?”
“No, just an appointment, just a checkup.”
“Well, what was the problem?” (I already know.)
“We were late. I got him out of bed at 8:00 a.m. His appointment wasn’t until 11:00. I gave myself three hours’ leeway. He showered, he shaved, he had breakfast, two cups of coffee, then he took the morning crossword puzzle into the bathroom, and I couldn’t get him out. We didn’t leave the house until 11:00, his appointment was at 11:00, we didn’t get there till 11:30. I was mortified! There is something wrong with your father.”
“Can I talk to Dad?”
“Yeah, he’s right here. Here, talk to your son.”
She summons my father to the phone—a man of few words. Some of you have dads like this, too, right?
“How are you?”
“Mom said you had a doctor’s appointment this week.”
“Were you sick?”
“Just a checkup, huh?”
“Mom said you were late.”
“Not really? Mom just told me that you got there at 11:30 when your appointment was at 11:00.”
“You weren’t late, Dad?”
And then you get into my father’s beam of light. I ask him to explain, and much to my amazement, he does! He says, “If you get there at 11:00, they never take you. They put you in an overheated, uncomfortable waiting room with boring, outdated magazines, and an assortment of sick people, some of whom have, certainly, deadly communicable diseases. So why would you want to sit there when, as an alternative, you can show up at 11:30, supported by your walker, at the age of 86, looking as feeble as you can, and they take you right in?”
And I’m thinking, “Who’s winning this ballgame?”
And then I go to Russia, and if there are 80 million people like Mom in Germany, there are 100 million like Dad in Russia. I learned this the hard way, as in most cross-cultural situations, you do it wrong, and then you figure out what you did that wasn’t appropriate.
I was teaching at St. Tikhon’s Institute in Moscow 15 years ago, and one of my colleagues said, “We are having a name’s day party for my son. Come over to the apartment 7:00 Friday evening. All my mother’s punctuality lectures kick in, I get there at 6:55. We ring the doorbell, the Russian hosts come, open the door, and look rather perplexed. They admit us, escort us to the room where all the hors d’oeuvres and the zakouski are, and we are invited to serve ourselves, the beverages are all set out, and the hosts go back to the kitchen. The doorbell does not ring again for two hours! The other Muscovites do not begin to appear until 9:00, 9:30, 10:00. We do not sit down to the party till 11:00 that evening.
Now if this had been a German party, it would have started at 7:00, as the invitation read, and by 11:00 it would have been over. But this is a Russian party. It is just getting started at 11:00, and there is no way to tell how long it is going to last. There is no way to predict how many toasts will be raised. There is no way to tell ahead of time how many folk songs the group will spontaneously burst into. There is no way to tell when the professor of Russian literature will arise and begin reciting Pushkin’s poetry for 20 minutes, after which, of course, we need to drink toasts to Pushkin, poetry, and professors of poetry. (laughter) There is no way to tell ahead of time when the pianist in the group will invite everyone into the parlor for a concerto, after which we will return to the table.
The Russian party is not a timed event! And when they say 7:00, it does not translate into English, it does not mean no later than 7:00. That is the German ballgame. We are playing the Russian ballgame. The Russian ballgame has no clock, remember? So when they said 7:00 it meant something like this: “We are having an open house at our apartment, beginning at 7:00. Come when you can.” Now if they put it that way, would you show up at 6:55? No, right?
I asked my Slavic and Balkan parishioners, “If I was having a party and told you to come at 7:00, about what time would you really come?” No one would come at 7:00. They all said, variously, 7:30, 8:00, 8:30, and 9:00. “What’s wrong with these people?” There is nothing wrong, we are just not playing the same ballgame, you see. We are not seeing the world the same way. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just different, but you had better know what ballgame you are playing before you start the game.
We are not clear about this, so sometimes at inter-Orthodox gatherings and events, we have these cultural problems. It is not the way we, as Orthodox, see the world. We are on the same page as Orthodox Christians there, we talked about that earlier, but on this ethnic cultural level, we are different, and that is okay, but we should know that about each other, especially at a multi-ethnic, multi-national seminary like St. Vladimir’s.
There is a third definition of culture I offer you in these last 15 minutes or so, and this may be the most useful for us all. Your culture, besides being the way you see the world, or the ballgame of life, as you play it, is also the story that you accept as your own. And here again, we come full circle, because we, as Orthodox Christians, accept certain stories as our own story.
At every liturgy we recite the central events of that story in the Anaphora. “God created the world, and when we had fallen away, He did not cease to do all things until He has brought us up to heaven and endowed us with His Kingdom which is to come.” That is our story. That is our story as Orthodox Christians. That binds us together, again, regardless of ethnic background, nationality or language.
But there is also the story, here in America, of each group as they came. As we prepare, the Orthodox Church in America, for our All-American Council next year, the Metropolitan Council, the Holy Synod, the Planning Subcommittee, have all advised us and encouraged us, “Let’s think about our story. What is our story, as Orthodox Christians in America?”
I think that is why they really invited me to talk about this, because our story in America starts, as you all know, in Alaska. The story begins rather horribly, in a certain sense, with freelance traders coming to Alaska and getting furs from the natives and intermarrying with them, and baptizing their wives and children, and building the first chain.
The second chapter began in 1784 when Grigory Shelikhov arrived with a boatful of cannon and armed men. The idea was, “We are not going to trade with the natives for these furs, we will just extort them. We will tell those native Alaskans, get out there and bring in the furs or we will blow up, not your houses or yourselves,” because they needed the men as manpower, “we will blow up your food supply. We will bombard your smokehouses, so that you will go hungry this summer. You might not die, but it is not going to be comfortable.”
They were being forced, at gunpoint, really, to do the bidding of Grigory Shelikhov and his men. The battle between the Kodiak Aleuts and Grigory Shelikhov and his cannon and all that, occurred at a village that is, today, called Old Harbor. That was the village that invited me to Alaska. I knew nothing about this when I arrived. “Why is the village called Old Harbor?” “Well, the new harbor in the town of Kodiak was founded in 1791, but the original harbor, the old harbor, is here, where the battle occurred.” It is the oldest parish in North America, Three Saints, the same feast day as the chapel here at St. Vladimir’s.
Then Shelikhov went back to Russia because he wanted all the other competition put out of business. He appeared before Catherine the Great (I am not quite sure how he got an appointment), and said, “I single-handedly conquered 10,000 native people. I brought them all into the Empire as taxpayers, and I deserve to be knighted.” He wanted to be Sir Grigory. “I deserve a trade monopoly, control of all commerce between the Russian Empire and the New World, and by the way, throw in Korea, Japan, and the Phillipines.” There was nothing bashful about Grigory Shelikhov.
Catherine was reading laissez-faire economic theory, popular at that time in France, and turned Grigory down flat. She did not even knight him. She gave him two ceremonial silver swords, pinned a medal on his chest, and dismissed him. But Grigory was more tenacious than that. He decided to play the church card. He said to Her Majesty on his second appointment, “I tell you what, I have already personally baptized, I don’t know how many, natives (which, by the way, was not true), and I have built a church (which was not true), and I will supply the church with all its necessary bread, wine, candles, incense, out of my own pocket, if you will just give me permission to recruit a priest to go to Kodiak Island.”
Now Catherine was smarter than Grigory. She said, “Grigory, you just told me you conquered 10,000 Aleuts. One priest will not be enough. I give you permission for ten, at your expense.” Now where is he going to get ten men to go to Alaska, which had not yet been mapped? On the globes of the world, it was still empty. It was like jumping into an unknown planet. He realized he was not going to get married men to go there, their wives would not put up with that, right? So he went to Valaam Monastery and he recruited eight monks and two novices. Grigory was responsible for providing transportation from the Finnish border to Alaska. In a certain sense he did, he bought the monks new boots. They walked 8000 miles!
Don’t you think that is part of the story every Orthodox Christian in North America should know, not just if you are Russian, or Alaskan? Our faith came to North America on foot. The monks walked 8000 miles. And when they sailed into Kodiak and they went into almost immediate conflict with Shelikhov’s men and his foreman, Alexander Baranov, who was oppressing, exploiting, and virtually enslaving the people the monks called, The Americans, because they had come to bring Orthodoxy to The Americans. They had come to bring the Orthodox Christian faith to anyone in North America, of any nationality, of any tribe, of any language, whoever would listen, whoever would accept the gospel, whoever wanted to be invited into this Kingdom which is to come, into which we have been baptized, and which we know in our bones is real, and true, and beautiful, and glorious, and for which we have no words.
It was that joy, the joy that we started with in this talk, that impelled those monks to come. They were not building an empire, they were not creating Russofile Aleuts—Aleuts who, in Alaska, would learn Russian language and salute the Tzar. That was not their mission. That was not their purpose. They were not transplanting another faith from somewhere else and bringing it to America. They were bringing Orthodoxy, that vision of the Kingdom, to people who had no way of knowing it even existed, and they succeeded beyond anyone’s possible imagination. They baptized thousands in their first year, and that laid the foundations of our Church in North America.
That is the beginning of our story, no matter what your own ethnic heritage may be. The story is that the Church came to America to bring the Orthodox faith in America to Americans, and they defined the Americans as Aleuts, Eskimos, Indians—the indigenous tribes. St. Innocent actually learned those languages and devised alphabets for them so they could have the scripture and the prayers and catechisms in their own language. But that was not the end in itself, hoping that, if they had it in their own languages, that alignment would happen, that they would get it. That love, joy and peace which we know to be the very reality of the Kingdom could be their experience, as well.
And they got it, because they embraced the faith, and have held onto it, tenaciously, for 200 years. When I came to Old Harbor, they had not had a priest, as I mentioned, in 140 years, practically, but when they sang the Paschal hymns, you knew they got it. The whole village was filled with that joy.
One of the great joys as a pastor in one of those small villages is that you get to see your whole parish every day. They are not far away. You walk out your door, and their houses are right there. On Pascha, in the middle of the afternoon, usually after vespers, I could go to every house in my village with a hand cross and an epitrachil and shout to them, “Christos Voskrese!” And the whole house would erupt, even some of those who were still in their bunk beds, recuperating from the all night service, responding, “Indeed He is risen! Voistinu Voskrese!” You could say it to them in their language, and they would say it in their language. You could say it in English and they would respond in English. The town was filled with that joy.
Doing that in the big city now, you would have to get in your car and call ahead and make an appointment. But in a village, it is just the organic, natural thing to do. The joy is there. They understood it, they got it, and they have been passing it on from grandparent to grandchild now for two centuries. That is what is organic about it, you see. It is that continuity in the same place, in the same church, on that same land, that has by now been sanctified by hundreds of years of that Paschal joy, in that place, celebrated by those people.
They knew they needed a priest. They wanted their kids to study the scripture, to know the commandments, to learn the prayers, in their own language, because the kids that I was teaching were the first English-speaking generation. But they already had the joy. They already had that experience. Their story is unique. Every parish in our Church in North America, regardless of ethnic background, has a story.
I want to conclude with this theme of story. What is the story of your parish? How long have you been there? If you have recently become Orthodox, you probably belong to a parish that has existed for a generation or two before you showed up. Who were the people who built that church? Do you know? What is the story that you have adopted as your own story?
And do you know Chapter 1 and Chapter 2? Maybe not. But it is your story. You have become part of a family. I remember when I was a kid, back in the 1950s, we had this thing called visiting. Some of you remember visiting, right? It usually happened on Sunday, because the stores were closed in those days. The relatives often just dropped by unannounced, and people brought out simple refreshments, and the aunts and the uncles sat around and told stories, reminiscing, telling the new members of the family, the sister-in-law who did not know their brother when he was 7, 8, and 9, and the mischief he did when he was a kid, and the trouble he got into at school that day. It was sort of like tattle-tale-ing on your own relatives to the new members of the family, so they would understand more fully the family into which they had now married, because by marrying into that family, that had become their story, too.
The theme of our next All-American Council is, The Household of Faith, and in preparation for that, we are asking each parish and each deanery to organize some way in which we visit with each other to hear the story—to hear the story of that place and that family, that community, the struggles that they went through.
My parish back in Pennsylvania is about 80 years old now, and I am 60 years old, so I was not there when it got started, but when I was a kid, the founders were still there. They were only one generation older than me, so I can tell the kids in that parish what the founding people were like, because I knew them. They never had a chance to know them, but I did, here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.
We moved out here in the 1960s. We have been in Crestwood 50 years. How time flies. Do the students who are here today know what it was like when St. Vladimir’s was downtown at Columbia? Have they heard the stories of the amazing faculty who founded this school? Those of us who were blessed to have studied under Father Schmemann, Father Meyendorff, Father Florovsky, Professor Arseniev, Professor Verhovskoy]—we’ve got stories. (laughter) But do the students and faculty today know those stories?
You see, as family we have to tell the story, because we have to know the struggles and the difficulties, the temptations, the passions, that they endured to make what we now take for granted possible. If we do not tell the story, they will not know, and if we do not tell it soon, it will not be left on earth for anyone to know.
We are reaching the time when we need to talk about our story, and share it with the next generation, and maybe we need to share it with each other. “Remember the time when Father John…?” (Oh, don’t get me started) “Remember the time when Father Alexander…? Remember the time when Prof said…?“You see what I am saying? That is our culture. That is the culture of this place, and this institution.
When you realize all the struggles, all the sacrifices, all the blessed events that have made Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 possible, then Chapter 3 can begin, and we can embrace the legacy, the sacred legacy, I would say the legacy of holiness with which we have been blessed, but we do not even know it is there.
On the one hand, we have an Orthodox culture that is based on what we get in church, no matter where, in the Anaphora, the sacraments, Holy Weekend, Pascha, and that we share, that is the one faith we have, we also have many cultures, and not just ethnic cultures—the founding of the Greek church across town or the Serbian church up the river, or the Russian colony further up. There are those stories, too, and that is all part of ours.
I visited Serbia when I was Dean of St. Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak. They invited all the deans of all the Orthodox seminaries in the world to come. We had a banquet, and at the banquet the seminary choir from Belgrade sang some hymns in Greek, and then they sang some folk tunes in Serbian and Bulgarian, and then they changed the repertoire again and they sang some liturgical hymns in Russian.
I turned to the delegate from Bulgaria sitting next to me and I said to him, “Would you do this in Bulgaria, too?” He said, “Oh no, we do not do Greek in Bulgaria.” I turned to a Romanian, and I said, “Would you do Slavonic in your country?” He said, “No, we do not do Slavonic in Romania.” Then I asked the Serbian hosts, “Why do you do all of these?” They said, “If it is Orthodox, it is ours.”
Shouldn’t that be our motto? If it is Orthodox, it is ours. If it is Serbian, it is ours. If it is Georgian, it is ours. If it is Ukrainian or Russian, it is ours. If it is Yupic Eskimo, it is ours. If it is Romanian, it is ours, because the one faith includes and blesses all of those other cultures, all of those languages, all those cuisines which we are enjoying today, all that folk music, all that history, all those stories, because all those stories are ours.
Our effort, I believe, now, in the 21st century, with so many amazing, wonderful stories—I would go further—sacred stories, that are ours, has to be to know it, to preserve it, and to embrace it as our own, and then to go forward with that story, bringing Orthodoxy, bringing the joy, the peace, the love, the beauty of the Kingdom of God, to all Americans in North America. That would fulfill the mission of St. Herman and those monks who walked those 8000 miles—one vision, one faith, many cultures, and they are all ours, to the glory of God, and the salvation of America, the land we love. Amen.