Reflections on Archbishop Dmitri

My wife and I moved to Dallas towards the end of the summer of 2007. The day before we arrived–it was a Sunday–we attended Liturgy in a small little Antiochian parish in San Antonio.  As we chatted with the good folks afterwards, the folks chimed in about possible parishes we might find in Dallas. Though we were coming from an Antiochian parish, and though these people were at an Antiochian parish themselves, they pointed us in the direction of the OCA cathedral. ‘’I’ve heard good things about that Antiochian parish’’ one parishioner said to me, ‘’but you should also check out St. Seraphim.  Archbishop Dmitri is a kind of Gandalf figure for the South.’’

That is the kind of endorsement one simply cannot ignore. The following Saturday, on a late August evening, we found ourselves in a vigil service within the sanctified walls of the cathedral Vladyka Dmitri had built. I remember that the hot, evening air was quiet outside, but inside the cathedral people were worshiping and offering themselves as living sacrifices in the concentrated way that comes about from standing on stubborn Texas clay. After the reading of the gospel, Vladyka inauspiciously emerged from behind the kliros to give blessings to the faithful. I remember, even before receiving that first blessing from Christ by the hand of Vladyka, being struck by his presence.  It was an odd thing: powerful and soft, graceful and magnetic, discernibly personable and discernibly heavenly, full of unique personality while also being an empty conduit of Christ. The ancient virtue the Greeks called megalopsuchia–what St. John the Forerunner meant when he said ‘’He must increase, but I must decrease’’–was exemplified in the person of Vladyka Dmitri. He was truly magnanimous–-“large souled”–-because he was filled with the love of God, and the light of the Diocese of the South was the Divine Light reflecting with bright gentleness from this man, beloved of God.

I count it an unworthy gift of God that He blessed me to have this man in my life. I was his parishioner, and he my Despota. I do not claim to have a privileged relationship to him: like so many others I drank gallons of coffee with him, both in the parish hall and in his kitchen, heard the same stories over and over, laughed at his jokes, and took questions to him as they arose. It was impossible to treat him like a legend or a celebrity. This the occasional traveler would find out when, upon bringing Vladyka some dogmatic, academic, or formal conversation, Vladyka would turn instead toward a pleasant story or to talk to an infant or toddler. I have often wondered if this was Vladyka’s favorite sermon–breaking off idle theologic in order to remind us that one must be like a child to enter the Kingdom.

These things everyone saw; but that this is not a privileged perspective only reinforces the greatness of the man.

He would love to share stories, often the same ones over and over. “You’re from California,” he would say to me. “I was first a bishop in California, an auxiliary bishop–-Bishop of Berkeley–-back in the 60’s.” At this point he would chuckle. “I got along well with everyone out there. They would see me, wandering around the University in a cassock, and everyone thought I was like them!” His eyes would shine, and from deep within his beard would come a soft laugh.

I once asked Vladyka about serving in WWII, where he was a Japanese interrogator for General MacArthur. He spoke with his usual kind-heartedness about his time in the service, but his maturity never threatened his characteristic levity.  Because the Japanese were not trained on how to behave when captured-–since they were never supposed to be captured-–he said his job was just to talk with them; a task well suited to his nature.  He told me of a “chat” with one Japanese soldier who had occupied his time on watch by diagramming the deployment of the Japanese fleet.  The man was so proud of his little sketch he proudly displayed it to the young serviceman Royster, oblivious of the consequences, which militarily, proved to be significant.

As our father in Christ, his children would lovingly share daily stories about him. He was known for always drinking coffee, no matter the time of day. He preferred his coffee strong, and, if possible, with chicory. He had acquired the taste while in New Orleans for graduate school, and ever since then Cafe Du Monde had been his favorite. After helping him out around the house one day, he gave me a can-–one of about 15 some voyaging monastics who had stopped by previously provided him. I loved Vladyka too much to want to finish the can, and yet was too much under his influence not to. When he made coffee at the parish, he would make it unbelievably strong. He would dump the recommended scoop into the coffee maker, say “How about let’s make this a strong batch”, feed it another scoop, and then – with customary twinkling eyes –“Ah, three for the Trinity.” If you wandered into the parish hall when he had made the coffee you might be warned by the regulars that you were about to drink, “bishop’s brew”.

His penchant for coffee was matched only by his assiduity for translation. He would frequently explain why he chose certain words over others. For the most part he used the King James; he believed the Gospel should be voiced as exaltedly as possible, and that the language we heard in Church should demand from us our very best attention. He would explain why he insisted on using “debts” rather than “transgressions” in the Lord’s prayer. He would gently insist the readers pronounce “victuals correctly as “vittles” when reading through the Psalms. His homilies had the same thoroughness and attention to detail, but despite his incredible facility with languages his decisive eloquence spoke simply and lovingly.

Vladyka was always found in the parish hall before or after the services. If you wanted to spend some time with him, all you had to do was show up an hour or two before Wednesday Vespers. He would be sitting at a table, talking to his dear friends who ran the St. Seraphim bookstore. You were always welcome to pull up a chair and join in to the conversation. And it was the conversation you would find yourself part of, not his conversation; for though he was defered to, he was happy to listen. He was a fixture in the parish hall after each service. Though accompanied by one of his smiling subdeacons, Vladyka’s arrival was never ostentatious or distracting from the existing atmosphere in the hall. He would always stop and talk to the youngsters, whether a solitary newborn or boisterous group of five year olds.  The babies loved him, and the youngsters adored him–running up to ask for a blessing or squeeze his knees. “And who’s this little guy?” he would always ask of my little son, his short-term memory failing. “Gregory? Well how you doing little Gregory?”

In August of 2011, after one of the last liturgies he attended, I walked by his table in the parish hall, carrying my infant son.  One of the deacons who was sitting with Vladyka at the table stopped me. “Vladyka wants to see him”, he said, gesturing towards my son.  I brought him to the table, where Vladyka, feeble but joyous, poked a finger at him. Gregory laughed. Vladkya could barely speak–the deacon, with an ear to Vladyka’s lips, had to echo his words to those of us at the table. In a wheelchair, without a voice, he continued to preach his humble sermon to us in his life. Even as an wizened old man about to leave this kingdom he revealed to us the way in which we are to enter the next. He was an 87 year old child, attending to my child, and proclaiming the gospel to the world.

I moved away from Dallas weeks before Vladyka fell asleep in the Lord. The last thing I did before I left was get his blessing. It was a weekday and the church parking lot where I parked the moving van was all but empty. I stumbled up the rickety steps to get to his second-story apartment–a small, simple place hovering above the first story he used for hosting. A couple steps in the door and I was past the outdated kitchenette and at his bedside. He was lying on his back, oxygen tubes in his nostrils, even more thin and wan than days before. For some reason I was nervous, and stumbled over my words. Barely able to speak, he teased me. I laughed, and his eyes flashed with his customary kindness. He raised his hand in blessing as I lowered my face to kiss it and I left Vladyka as I met him–with a simple blessing on a hot Texas day.

My most enduring memory of Vladyka is of him during the liturgy, standing between the Royal Doors, cross in hand, sweetly crying out to God, “Look down, Oh God, from Heaven, and behold, and visit this vineyard, which Thine Own Right Hand has planted, and establish it.” That image is seared indelibly in my soul–the icon of a true bishop.

I knew Vladyka in the ways so many of us knew him, and he left his mark on us all. He loved the people of St. Seraphim, and they loved him back. It was not loud; quite the opposite. It had the soul-pleasing presence of a constant wind winding its way through the forest, or the soothing sound of the fingers of the tide tenderly touching the land. But behind the peaceful serenity of a lapping wave upon the shore is the fearful power of the breakers–and as Vladyka spoke and lived with us gently, the tremendous power in his life was evident. Many of us could speak of such things, but would rather take them and cherish them preciously and privately. There was Vladyka for us, and there was Vladyka for me; and for me it shall stay.

Memory eternal!

[Note: this has been slightly altered version of what I first wrote the day after Archbishop Dmitri reposed on Aug 28, 2011, and posted elsewhere shortly thereafter. This weekend we moved Vladyka’s body from Restland cemetery to the memorial chapel adjacent our sanctuary. It was a weekend of unspeakable beauty and joy, and Vladyka’s presence is felt.]

Marilynne Robinson’s “Absence of Mind”

I recommend you check out David Bentley Hart’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s book “Absence of Mind”. The literary talent behind Gilead, and Home (among others), and the keen mind behind The Death of Adam offers a published version of last years’ Terry Lectures given at Yale University. With her discerning eye and broad scope — encompassing culture, science, history, and philosophy — she takes on the modern “parascientific” myths about the human mind that are popularly shopped to us. Trust me, philosophy of mind is a high stakes hurt locker of questions and literature; and often the questions and the literature don’t match. According to Hart (whom I trust), Robinson (who I respect) has handled this important topic responsibly, deftly, and insightfuly.

If you’re not immediately interested because of DBH’s endorsement or because, well, it’s Marilynne Robinson, here’s a taste of what Hart has to say.

What Robinson’s book shows perhaps most clearly is that reductionism is not a philosophy honestly distilled from experience, but a dogma imposed upon it. For roughly a century and a half, Western culture has been falling ever more thoroughly under the sway of the prejudice that modern empirical science is not only the sole model of genuine truth but also capable of explaining all things. It is a strange belief, but to those who hold it sincerely, nothing is more intolerable than the thought that anything might lie beyond the probative reach of their “mechanical philosophy.” And so the exclusion of interiority, and of the self’s consciousness of itself, from their understanding of our humanity is simply inevitable, no matter how irrational or arbitrary that exclusion may be. “Subjectivity,” writes Robinson, “is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.”

Even his criticism is a compliment:

If, though, I had to come up with some complaint to make against the book, I suppose I could fret for a few moments that its rhetorical power might possibly distract many readers from the cogency of its arguments. Ours is the age of “bullet” headings, after all, and expository prose is expected to come in bland, easily digestible fragments, composed entirely of short, often repetitious declamatory sentences. There is some danger, consequently, that Robinson’s literary grace — the expressive force of her language, the dense economy of her sentences, the fluidity with which she moves from point to point — will be mistaken by some as willful obscurity, or resented as a cruel tax upon their patience.

It would, however, be a dark day for civilization if writers of Robinson’s gifts could be swayed by complaints of that sort. In point of fact, much of the joy of reading Robinson comes from her ability to translate complex ideas into words suited to their subtleties. Beginning with her remarkable debut novel Housekeeping (1980), all of her work, fiction and essays alike, has been marked by a luminous intelligence and a rather attractive intellectual severity, communicated in a language that wastes no words and that demands attentiveness. Absence of Mind is a short book, but also an intensely reflective and penetrating one, and it offers considerable rewards for anyone willing to read it carefully, and to think along with it. For all its brevity, it makes its case with surprising comprehensiveness.

If you haven’t read Robinson before, consider this your call to duty.  I haven’t read Absence of Mind yet, but it has just rocketed up on my list.


St. Silouan on Nietzsche

From Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov’s book St. Silouan the Athonite. (“Staretz” is a Russian term for a spiritual elder, and the term is used affectionately by Elder Sophrony for his mentor and spiritual father.)

I remarked to the Staretz that there are people who interpret freedom from passion, not as love for God but as a particular kind of contemplation of being, ranking higher than distinguishing good from evil, and they rank such contemplation above Christian love. To this, the Staretz replied,

‘That comes from the devil. The Holy Spirit teaches otherwise.’

And listening to the Staretz, I could not help thinking to so-called ‘supermen’ who ascend ‘on the other side of good and evil’.

The Staretz used to say,

‘The Holy Spirit is love, and He gives the sould strength to love her enemies. And he who does not love his enemies does not know God.’

This last criterion occupied an absolutelyexclusive and incontestable place in the Staretz soul. He would say,

‘The Lord is a merciful Creator, having compassion for all. The Lord pities all sinners as a mother is compassionate with her children even when they take the wrong path. where there is no love for enemies and sinners, the Spirit of the Lord is missing.’ (104-5)

What follows is one of my favorite stories from  St. Silouan’s life that illustrates his exceeding love.

I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction,

‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

Obviously upset, the Staretz said,

‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire — would you feel happpy?

‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:

‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’

And he did, indeed, pray for all. It became unnatural for him to pray for himself alone. All men are subject to sin, all ‘come short of the glory of God’. The mere thought of this was enough to distress him — in the measure given to him he had already seen the glory of God and known what it was to fall short of it. His soul was stricken by the realization that people lived in ignorance of God and His love, and with all his strength he prayed that the Lord in His inscrutable love might suffer them to know Him. (48-49)

The Ethics of Avatar

I recently remembered that I meant to write something about Avatar.  The reason I forgot?  Well, its Avatar, how much time can you really spend thinking about it?

When I saw the film I pretty much had the reaction I thought I would.  I was entertained, impressed by the special effects, annoyed by the stale dialog, bored by the plot, and rather embarrassed by the moments it started channeling Pocahontas and Fern Gully. Unlike many other Christians I have very little venom towards the film’s goofy pantheism, maybe I would if I felt it was nefarious or compelling.  But it was about as seductive as a spell cast in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, minus the cool 90’s appeal. I think our kids will be OK. Is it a sign of the times that such values are considered “stock” and fit for mass consumption.  Sure, but that’s not really news.

What I thought was most interesting and avant garde about the film, was the means by which it sought to compel you to root for the Na’vi and the divine energy upholding Pandora: Beauty. All you have to do is go on Cameron’s magical mystery tour of the forests of Pandora and the right thing becomes self-apparent.  There’s no argument, just jaw dropping grandeur. Sure the human scientist types may flap their gums about the precious opportunity they have to study the Na’vi culture, but the science and PC agenda sounds (as I believe it’s meant to) hollow and naive.  Platitudes and platforms are dismissed– just come and see.

It’s about beauty, not diversity.

Once the viewer has sat awash in sci-fi splendor of Cameron’s wood, the right way is not wholly lost and gone, but clear as a Pandorian river.  How should we then live?  In a way that loves the Beautiful and participates with it.  David Hume torqued philosophers for centuries by claiming that the state of things has no bearing on how things ought to be: that you cannot move from is to ought.  Sure if I don’t feed my pets they will die, so?  That is the case, but how does it follow that I ought to feed my pets, or myself for that reason? At a time when people are allergic to oughts Cameron proves Hume wrong by showing us something beautiful.

If only he hadn’t cluttered it up with the rest of the film.

“Vintage Church” vs. “Pagan Christianity”

The Emerging church movement (if you want to call it by that name) raises some good questions, and give the question “What is the Church?” new life.  For this I really appreciate the Emerging movement. Though it suffers from the unfortunate problem of being wrong, it has — much like the Reformation — the virtue of reacting against something that deserving of reaction.  While the reaction is against  the standard Ol’ Megachurches in particular, at its root the reaction is against Protestant ecclesiology.

Observe the battle between Reformed Protestant Megachurch leader (though in some ways “Emergent” himself) Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill church (author of “Vintage Church”) and Frank Viola and Co. and their recently published “Pagan Christianity”.  A fun, quick read of this is a review that Driscoll commissioned.

The aforementioned review refers early and often to Methodist NT scholar Ben Witherington’s responses, which are certainly worth the read.  He aptly takes on many of the falacious and provocative claims of the book, and replaces them with (gasp!) the historical truth that the ancient Church was a kind of institution.  As an Orthodox Christian, I have nothing else really to argue for; Witherington has done the heavy lifting for me.  Viola and Barnes have stirred up the curiosity, and to those who do their homework the question is posed: What do I do next?

…in an effort to bait you into reading Witherinton’s responses…

My point in the above critique is simply this— calling more high church worship ‘pagan’ is not only a tragedy which impoverishes the soul. It’s a travesty. And saying over and over again that there is not a shred of Biblical evidence for sacred buildings, particularly church buildings reflects both historical myopia and bad theological analysis of a theology of holiness and worship. Such a view is narrow where the Bible is not narrow, and it fails to grasp the great breadth of ways in which God can be truly, and Biblically worshipped and served, and is indeed worshipped and served around the world every single week. We do not need to be liberated from holy worship—we need to be liberated in and by it, in whatever form it may legitimately take. And that’s the Biblical truth.