Archive for February 5th, 2007

Orthodox Mission

February 5, 2007


Today I have had the pleasure of being in Jacksonville, Fl, for the Diocese of the South’s annual clergy retreat. Our speaker is Fr. Michael Oleska who teaches in Alaska, and is probably the foremost authority of the history of Orthodox missions to America, as well as Orthodox missions in general.

Our lecture this afternoon was excellent, particularly connecting the fairly well-known work of early missions in Alaska, with the larger history of Orthodox missions in general. One of Fr. Michael’s distinctions was interesting, if only for the generalization it drew of a difference between the East and the West in Christianity (one should never push that distinction beyond its limit) – but I thought his remarks were well on target.

He noted that there is a general line of demarcation in Europe between East and West, between that part of the world whose legacy is owed to Byzantium and that part of the world whose legacy is owed to Rome. He noted that the Eastern world had been forged in the military conquests of Alexander the Great, who, to the largest degree, conquered civilizations that were older and more advanced than his own Macedonian/Greek world. Areas such as Persia, India, Egypt, were all very old, revered civilizations.

The Western world, on the other hand, was a conquering of Barbarians. The general result of which was to define “civilizing” as making them like the one “civis” Rome. Thus the learning of Latin was a key part of learning to be civilized. In the same way, later supplanters of Roman civilization, the Nation States of Western Europe, defined their own colonizing role as that of making foreign peoples like the people back home. Thus areas of the world “civilized” by the British play polo and cricket, no matter how foreign, or even silly such games should have been in their own culture. The point was to make “Englishmen” (or “Frenchman”, etc.) of the colonies.

This difference in attitude, Fr. Michael noted, comes over in the difference between missions in East and West. The East was far more comfortable to take what it found and leave as much intact as possible – using native language and custom as the bearer of the Christian faith – while the West tended to want to make of converts a repetition of the capital (wherever that might have been).

I thought long and hard (and am still thinking) about what this might mean to Orthodox missions in America, and in the American South where I serve. I have no firm conclusions, but much to think about. I ask the prayers of St. Herman and others who have gone before and brought Christianity to peoples without thinking that they need to make those people into someone they were not. A fitting meditation.

St. Silouan as a Teacher

February 5, 2007


This is a small excerpt from St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony.

Throughout my time with Blessed Staretz Silouan I never for an instant doubted that his words were the ‘words of life eternal’ received from on high, and that it was not some sophistry that had taught him the truth which his whole life bore witness to. A great many people talk lightly about love of Christ but their actions are a scandal to the world and so what they say has no life-giving force.

The Staretz, with whom I was on close terms for many years, and of whom in my foolishness I now make bold to write, was such a great, such a splendid ascetic, that I cannot find words to express my awe. At the same time his life was so simple, so natural and truly humble that any rhetoric on my part would introduce an alien element. This is why it is so difficult to write about him.

There are people for whom a brief word is not enough, while others are put off by lengthy exegesis. The Staretz’ sacred, plain teaching, because it is so simple, is beyond the understanding of many, and so I have decided to add my own arid, distorted comment, presuming no doubt erroneously, that in doing so I may help someone to understand who is used to a different style of life, of expression.

Let us consider, for example, this brief homily of the Staretz.

‘What is necessary to have peace in soul and body? We must love all men as ourself, and be ready for death at all times.’

At the thought of approaching death the soul is generally seized with uneasy dread, often with despair, too, to such an extent that the body falls ill because of the soul’s torment. So how is it that the Staretz can say that constant preparedness for death and love for all men fills not only the soul but the body, too, with peace? A curious, incomprehensible doctrine!

When he speaks of peace in soul and body the Staretz is envisaging circumstances when not the soul only but the body, too, knows the blessed action of grace. However, here he is thinking of a measure of grace less than that which he knew when the Lord appeared to him. In the latter instance grace both in soul and body was so powerful that his body, also, was aware of being hallowed, and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit evoked such potent love for Christ that it, too, wanted to suffer for the Lord.