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.]

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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)

“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.

A Take on McLaren

As many of you know I try to stay abreast of the Emergent(ing) church literature, and I’m particularly interested because it is both a real divorce from traditional Protestantism and also a natural and unsurprising outgrowth of traditional Protestantism.  I’m been paying particular attention to Vintage Church author Mark Driscoll’s heated disagreement with the authors Pagan Christianity.

The issues brought up by McLaren and Co. require a response, even if, like me, one responds by making them irrelevant.  That is to say that I became Orthodox and the new vision of “what the Gospel means to us today”,  “organic” Christianity, and “rediscovering” the historic Church was replaced by something solid and formative, rather than something McLaren and/or I form.

Something similar is said by Fr. Gregory Jenson on the AOI blog.  It’s self-admittedly strongly worded, but I think he’s getting at something.

McLaren is not presenting us with a new kind of Christianity but simply a re-working of Evangelical Christianity. While he claims his work is post-modern, it isn’t. For that we should look to the works of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and David Bentley Hart. Read these theologians and the intellectual and spiritual poverty of McLaren’s work and the emegent church movement is clear.

Whatever good points there might be in his re-working, in the end McLaren’s “new kind of Christianity” demonstrates the inherent and internal theological and spiritual weakness of the Reformation in general and of Evangelical Christianity in particular. That weakness is the weakness of a merely partial faith, a faith that is not orthodox (or Orthodox) because it is not catholic (or Catholic) and not catholic (or Catholic) because it is nor orthodox (or Orthodox).

While I respect Milbank and Hart, I don’t believe that they are the best to contrast against McLaren.  Certainly one could say the same about Luther, Calvin, Newman, and Chesterton.  One could say the same about Ben Witherington or Pope Benedict.  I’m tempted to say the same about Tim Keller. The contrast here is between the Church and McLaren’s vision of the Church.

Viewed in this light, the debate about McLaren, the emergent church movement and a “new kind of Christianity” is the theological equivalent of intramural flag football. You got a lot of guys on the field but none of them are particularly fit or skilled. And certainly none of them play at a professional level.

To push the analogy just one more step, the professional level that McLaren and his critics merely imitate, is the catholic tradition of theological orthodoxy of the Church Fathers and the sacramental, liturgical and ascetical practice of the historic Christian Church. Whatever our differences, this tradition is to be found in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The Hope that Comes with Lent

One thing struck me squarely from Metropolitan JONAH’s Archpastoral letter for the beginning of the Great Fast: Lent is a time for audacious hope. In his first paragraph he writes,

We fast, we pray, we go to services, and we give alms. But what is different in us the very day after Pascha? Have we attained inner peace? Have we come to self-control over our passions? Has my soul been healed, even a little?

The work we set upon during this time is not without purpose.  The most visible aspects of Lent are things like: foods we are giving up, the color purple, and long services. This is just the work, and not the reason for the work.  This is spiritual combat; and as the armies are marching towards the battlefields there is the ever present hope of victory.  His Beatitude reminds us of this: the victory that comes with true repentance.

He continues:

Lent is the time for repentance. But that repentance does not simply mean feeling sorry for our sins, much less trying to do some kind of penitential acts to atone for them. Rather, the goal of repentance is the transformation of our minds and hearts, our very consciousness. It means a transformation of our whole life. To engage it means that we have to embrace change. This change not only affects our diet for a few weeks, or abstaining from some bad habits. It means a different way of behaving, of perceiving God, ourselves, our neighbors. It means a rejection and renunciation of the ways we have been living and treating others, and the adoption of a new way of life. We have to come to the recognition that how we have been living and behaving does not lead us deeper into communion with God and our neighbors, but rather alienates us from both, and from our very self.

The tithe of the year is in fact a return to our own humanity, and our own personal identity.  Read the whole thing.

“Let us set out with joy…”

Last night, during Forgiveness Vespers, we sang to following verses (Stichera) from the Lenten Triodian.  They offer insight into what we are doing (and not doing) during the Fast.  God have mercy upon us.

Save me, O Lord my God, for Thou art the salvation of all. The billows of my passions sorely trouble me, and the burden of my transgressions drags me down. Stretch out Thine hand in help and lead me up to the light of compunction, for Thou are compassionate and lovest mankind.

Gather together my scattered mind, O Lord, and purify my dry and barren heart, giving me like Peter repentance, like the Publican sighs of sorrow, and like the Harlot tears, that I may cry with a loud voice unto Thee:  Save me, O God, for Thou only art compassionate and lovest mankind.

Often when I offer praise to God, I am found to be committing sin; for while I sing the hymns with my tongue, in my soul I ponder evil thoughts.  But through repentance, O Christ my God, set right my tongue and soul, and have mercy upon me.

Let us all make hast to humble the flesh by abstinence, as we set upon the God-given course of the holy Fast, and with prayers and tears let us seek our Lord and Savior. Laying aside all memories of evil, let us cry aloud: We have sinned against Thee, O Christ our King, save us as the men of Ninevah in days of old, and in Thy compassion make us sharers in Thy heavenly Kingdom.

When I think of my works, deserving of every punishment, I despair of myself, O Lord.  For see, I have despised Thy precious commandments and wasted my life as the Prodigal. Therefore I entreat Thee: cleanse me in the waters of repentance, and through prayer and fasting make me shine with light, for Thou alone art merciful; abhor me not, O Benefactor of all, supreme in love.

Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat.  Let us purify our souls and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover.

Elder Sophrony: Crossing the Abyss

During his life the Elder Sophrony Sakharov lived an intense yet hospitable life: a life characterized by love.  This love appears clearly in his writings.  They are both warm and personal, strong and soaring.  They invite and challenge.  I believe he was able to do this largely because his vision was expanded by suffering, the kind of suffering that is common to all humanity and especially common to the people of this present age.  Meaninglessness.

Consider these sections from a chapter from his book His Life Is Mine entitled “The Bliss of Knowing the Way”. Pardon the length, cutting out anything at all was exasperating.  You can read the whole chapter here.

Those with no experience of prayer find it hard to believe how prayer broadens the horizons of the spirit. Sometimes prayer consumes the heart like fire; and when the heart succumbs to the burning flame, unexpectedly there falls the dew of divine consolation. When we become so conscious of our frailty that our spirit despairs, somehow, in an unknown fashion, a wondrous light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralysed with dread, the same light will turn black night into bright day. When we properly condemn ourselves to eternal infamy and in agony descend into the pit, of a sudden some strength from Above will lift our spirit to the heights. When we are overwhelmed by the feeling of our own utter nothingness, the uncreated light transfigures and brings us like sons into the Father’s house.

How are these contrasting states to be explained? Why does our self-condemnation justify us before God? Is it not because there is truth in this self-condemnation and so the Spirit of Truth finds a place for Himself in us?

Even remote contact with the Divine releases the soul from all passions, including envy, that vile offspring of pride. The man who continues with a humble opinion of himself will be given greater knowledge of the mysteries of the world to come. He will be delivered from the power of death. United through prayer with Christ, he realises that in eternity the whole content of being will belong to him, too, through the perpetual dwelling in him of the Holy Spirit- of the Trinity, it would be truer to say. Father, Son and Holy Spirit will make Their abode with him. By virtue of this, every good or word or deed, from whatever source, will become part of his eternal divinised life. Thus, in the words of St Paul ‘as having nothing yet we possess all things’ (2 Cor. 6.10). If anyone performs deeds to the glory of God which bring him both temporal and eternal renown, the man of prayer feels not envy but joy at our common salvation. My brother’s glory will be my glory, also. What blessedness to behold fellow humans radiant with the Holy Spirit! Yet even this is but a pale reflection of our joy in the Kingdom to come where, in a superabundance of love which never diminishes, the spirit of man will embrace the fulness of god-man being.

Let us not forget, however, that the way to this superabundant love lies through the depths of hell. We must not be afraid of this descent since without it plenitude of knowledge is unobtainable.

Sometimes the trials and difficulties which befall put us in the position of a traveller who suddenly finds himself on the edge of an abyss from which it is impossible to turn back. The abyss is the darkness of ignorance, and terror at being captive to death. Only the energy of a saintly despair will get us across. Upheld by some mysterious strength, we cast ourselves into the unknown, calling upon the Name of the Lord. And what happens? Instead of smashing our heads against unseen rocks, we feel an invisible hand gently carrying us over, and we come to no harm. Throwing ourselves into the unknown means trusting to God, having let go of all hope in the great ones of the earth and setting off in search of a new life in which first place is given to Christ.

Traversing the abyss of the unknown can also be likened to swinging along a cable stretched from one side to the other. The hands of Christ crucified link the far ends of the abyss. The soul that has been given the dread privilege of travelling along this cable can find no words to describe it, just as those who have passed beyond the grave cannot tell us of their experience on the new plane.

The spiritual vision just outlined dissolves into contemplation of the crucified Christ. His arms are outstretched to gather all peoples into one, to link the far concerns of the world; His body, hanging on the cross, forms a stupendous bridge between earth and heaven. Uniting in Himself both God and Man, He calls upon us to follow in His steps. It is not a simple matter to portray what meets the spiritual eye at such times. Just as a heavy body precipitated beyond the range of terrestrial gravity becomes subject to the mechanics of space and moves at a speed impossible on the surface of the earth, so it is with our spirit when prayer in its upsurge towards God overcomes the passions which pin us down, to move in the luminous sphere of the Divine and contemplate the sublime and hitherto unknown. In the depths of our consciousness we apprehend the unoriginate Truth, and the Spirit testifies to our immortality. Thus the first dread vision of darkness and mortality changes to a vision of light and life indestructible.

At first the struggle for prayer seems to be beyond our strength but if she persists the soul will eventually be able to contain within herself at the same time sorrow and joy; despair and hope. There is no more alternating between elation and depression, since all states are gathered into a single whole. Through knowledge of God the soul has acquired profound peace.

O God and Father, without beginning;
Thou Who art blessed throughout all ages;
Who hast revealed unto us the mystery
of the way of Thy salvation:
Renew our nature, by Thy Word abiding in us,
and make us the temple of Thy Holy Spirit,
that being ever guarded by Thy might
we may give glory to Thee in a worthy manner,
now and for ever.