Holy Trinity Church, Parma, OH, will be the site of the 17th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, a one-day gathering on Tuesday, November 13, 2012—the Feast of Saint John Chrysostom—at which a new Primate of the Orthodox Church in America will be elected. Podcasts from this meeting are available here.
We have gathered on this eve of the 17th All American Council, beginning with this prayer service; appealing to our Lord and Savior for guidance, peace, inspiration. And it falls on the eve of the Feast of St. John Chrysostom. Just why the Church celebrates the Feast of St. John Chrysostom on November 13th is a bit of a mystery.
You probably know that he died on the 14th of September, while on his exile, and that being the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Church did not think it would be proper to give recognition to somebody so important as John on the 14th of September. But just why the Church in that 4th or 5th Century decided to commemorate John after his relics were returned, a Feast which we celebrate on the 27th of January, on the 13th of November is a mystery.
I’ve looked into this. There are some theories that it may have been the date on which he was exiled and left Constantinople. Another theory is that it may be the date that he was summoned to Constantinople to become the bishop of Constantinople. Or perhaps, it was ordained from eternity to be the Feast on which our Church holds the 17th All American Council
There is a wonderful, short essay about John Chrysostom by Fr. Georges Florovsky. It’s called John Chrysostom: The Prophet of Charity. This is the concluding paragraph:
John Chrysostom’s life was stormy and hard. It was a life of endurance and martyrdom. He was persecuted and rejected and died homeless as a prisoner in exile. All he was given to endure he accepted in the spirit of joy, as from the hand of Christ, Who Himself was rejected and persecuted. The Church gratefully recognized that witness and solemnly acclaimed Chrysostom as one of the “ecumenical teachers” for all the ages.
There is some unusual flavor of modernity in the writings of Chrysostom. His world was like ours, a world of tensions, a world of unresolved problems in all walks of life. His advice appeals to our age no less than it did to his own. But his main advice is a call to integral Christianity, in which faith and charity, belief and practice, are organically linked in an unconditional surrender of man to God’s overwhelming love, an unconditional trust in God’s mercy, an unconditional commitment to His service, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Indeed, we too are in a time of tension and unresolved problems. John was a prophet of charity and a teacher of suffering. His time and his life was very much involved in a political turmoil that was taking place in the empirical capital. But it’s a turmoil that penetrated deep into the life of the Church, and so he understood, as we understand, how the life in the Church can be indeed full of turmoil and chaos and confusion. And he wrote this following letter to his friend, a woman, the Deaconess Olympias. This is what he wrote:
Come now let me relieve the wound of your despondency, and disperse the thoughts that gather this cloud around you. What is it that upsets your mind; why are you sorrowful and dejected? Is it because of the fierce black storm which has overtaken the Church, enveloping all things in darkness as of a night without a moon, and is growing every day, travailing to bring forth disastrous shipwrecks, and increasing the ruin of the world? I know all of this as well as you.
Nevertheless even when I look at these calamities I do not abandon hope, considering as I do He who is the pilot of all this, the One who can calm the raging waters. Do not be cast down. For there is one thing, Olympias, which is really terrible, only one real thing, and that is sin; and I have never ceased continually harping on this theme; but as for all other things, plots, enmities, frauds, calumnies, insults, accusations, confiscation, exile, the keen sword of the enemy, the peril of the deep, warfare of the whole world, or anything else that you can name, these are but idle tales.
That’s amazing – his fortitude, his patience, his ability to be so strict with himself and so kind and merciful with others. He truly is a model for us in our time, because for us suffering is something that comes very difficultly. We all suffer, certainly, but we don’t grow wise from our suffering, and all too often, we suffer for the wrong things.
We live in a time and a culture and a place where we are preoccupied with those things, the pursuit of pleasure, salary, stability, status, comfort, all those things that blind us to each other, blind us to the needs of the world, and blind us to what our true needs are. We are incapable of knowing true joy, because we are incapable and somehow unable to endure real suffering and learn from suffering.
There is of course hope, because the Church continues in spite of our failures and sins, and there are good people doing good things all the time. And often the good things that are being are done by people who may not be very well known or work that is being done quietly and unassumingly. It’s interesting that two witness of outreach and charitable work that was done in the last century were women, two extraordinary saints – St. Elizabeth the New Martyr and recently canonized St. Maria Skobtsova.
Maria, canonized recently by the Ecumenical Patriarch, her name has not yet been entered in all the diptychs of the Orthodox churches, but she certainly was a saint. She was a Russian aristocrat, very worldly, intellectual, poet caught up in that kind of milieu of radical thinking of the Revolution which took place. She was married twice. She found herself in exile in France eventually and became a very unusual type of monastic.
She saw her monastic calling of duty as a calling to serve and help poor people, those who were destitute and outcasts, and in some ways kind of almost a fool for Christ. She is depicted on one of the walls of our church. You’ll have to find her. It’s in the vestibule. John Chrysostom would have certainly loved Maria Skobtsova and endorsed and supported her.
Her writings are available, translated in English. This is from her short essay On the Imitation of the Mother of God, who she reminds us is also an archetype. Just as we are to follow Christ, the Mother of God, the Blessed Mother provides us an example of how to endure and how to learn from suffering. She writes:
Let the Cross lie on human shoulders along the path of human godlikeness. The human heart should be pierced by the two-edged swords, the soul-cutting weapons of other people’s crosses. Our neighbor’s cross should be a sword that pierces our soul. Our soul should participate in the neighbor’s destiny. It should co-suffer, co-feel. And it is not the soul that chooses these swords. They’re chosen by those who took them up, like the cross on their shoulders. After the likeness of its archetype, the Mother of God, the human soul is drawn to Golgotha in the footsteps of her son and cannot help being drawn there; cannot help bleeding. To my mind, it is here that the authentic mystical basis of human communion and community lie.
“The authentic mystical basis of human community.” Is that not what the Holy Church is about? The human community. The integration of humanity into the Body of Christ. The manifestation of the Kingdom of God in this world. And yet, brothers and sister, how far we fall from these goals. How much we are filled with self-love. How difficult it is to truly love God and love each other as we are commanded and called to do and called to be examples of throughout this world.
We Orthodox are particularly affected by this sin; by this blindness; by this hard-heartedness; thinking somehow that we are better, more pure, more correct than those around us. We Orthodox, who exist in a world, in a place, in a society that has not been historically and traditionally Orthodox, are particularly challenged by this. And I know that we try, but all too often we fail.
And we fail each other. We fail each other. We take pride in our rituals and our icons, but we fail in those basic, human needs. We are unable to look each other in the eye; to talk honestly; to listen. We are filled with mistrust. We are threatened by each other. The one thing we are good at is taking offense, and boy can we hold a grudge.
We’re disconnected. And of course, it gets down to the basics. It’s an inadequate prayer life. It’s taking the Sacraments lightly. It’s not loving the Church. It’s not coming to know the Church. It’s not taking seriously the gift that the Church has been to us. We stand on the shoulder of great men and women. The reason that we can come together as we do is because there have been true heroes of faith in our time, in our recent past – a recent past that we have not sufficiently come to appreciate.
We stand and we remember those people. And as we remember those great bishops, our teachers from our seminaries, the great pastors who worked in our churches during the last century, if you can remember some of your favorite of these teachers and bishops, I think you will remember them with a smile on their face. Most of these people were truly filled with a love of God, a love of life, and filled with joy. And they were precisely the people that suffered a great deal, and they turned around that suffering and made it something positive and wise and noble.
I would like to conclude by quoting from a speech of one of these incredible forefathers, a wise person, who some of you knew, and who certainly was a person filled with great love and joy. He was Archbishop, but he became Metropolitan Leonty. He became the Metropolitan of our church in 1950. He had come to North America at the turn of the last century as a young priest, as many of the Russian missionaries came.
He worked in the seminary in Minneapolis; then came to New York. He was the editor of the church publication. He was the right-hand to Patriarch St. Tikhon, when Tikhon was Bishop in New York. He was a participant in Russia at the 1917 Council, which elected Tikhon to be Patriarch. He returned to North America. His wife died in the 1930s, and he was the father of several children, whom he raised and who all became distinguished in their own right.
He then became Bishop of Chicago. In 1950, upon the death of Metropolitan Theophilus, at the 8th All American Sobor in New York, he as the senior bishop opened the Council with this speech. Incidentally, he also is depicted in this church. And perhaps of all the marvelous icons here that surround us, truly beautiful icons, Fr. Berzonsky, who was the predecessor here when all this was done, took a very bold move, for which perhaps he may have been somehow criticized by his bishop. I don’t know.
But the end result is that of all the beautiful icons here, perhaps the most unique is the iconographic depiction of Metropolitan Leonty. Again, I won’t tell you where it is. Try to find it later. But Leonty’s time was not unlike ours. It was a time of confusion for the Church that at that time was ten times the present OCA. It was called the Metropolia. There were 300,000 members in that church.
There was canonical confusion and stability that Metropolia wasn’t recognized by other churches; that people weren’t sure whether to turn to Constantinople or Moscow or what. And this song may sound rather familiar. We again are facing those questions, worried that maybe we won’t be recognized, and what should our canonical future be? So this is how Archbishop Leonty spoke at that Sobor on these themes.
The historical growth of North American Orthodoxy has gone through agonizing sufferings. Agonizing sufferings and strivings. The Orthodox Church in North America has gone through agonizing sufferings. But our conviction of the absolute necessity of administrative independence remains. There is no return to the past.
We have not forgotten and are unable not to remember that in our gradual development and flourishing, we are deeply bound in our relations to those outside. We did not give birth to ourselves. We are not without relatives.
Our mother was the Russian church, from which we were formed in human history as a mission among the unlightened peoples of Alaska, as a diocese on a new continent; as a collection of dioceses among heterodox peoples; as a church into which people who left Asia and Europe from Russian and non-Russian countries have entered and flowed in and became integrated and rooted; in which they live and act with all the rights and privileges as citizens of the Great Republic, the genuine free democracy, the United States of America.
We love our old homeland, but we also, in our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, love our new homeland. We love, honor, and respect our mother Russian church, but we are now a grown up daughter church. We are essentially bound to, love, and our dedicated to the children that the Lord God has given us, just as we love, honor, and respect our Eastern Greek grandmother church, always raising our petitions and prayer to the Lord God for the Most Holy Orthodox Patriarchs together with the Bishops and Episcopate of the Russian church and her faithful people.
We are their branches, but by the mercy of God, we are already an adult daughter church and a granddaughter church. And we have serious obligations before God and the people given to us by our destiny, temporarily and eternally, to be our children, the many thousands of members of the flock that have been given to us by our Lord God.
And so, brothers and sisters; all of who have gathered on this momentous, important, and holy occasion, we are here because in spite of our weaknesses; in spite of the canonical anomaly that perhaps we are as an Orthodox Church in America, as an OCA, we nevertheless are here because of a great historical legacy. We pray that we will be recognized, but it’s more important how we recognize the world, our Orthodox world, and each other and how seriously we take our task to work together. As the future St. Leonty said:
How serious we take the obligation before God and the people given to us by our destiny; how seriously we take that to build up this Body of Christ to which we have all been called to and to manifest the Kingdom of God, which is in our midst.