Archive for June 14th, 2007

On the Shoulders of Giants

June 14, 2007


One of the peculiar things (though not really) about the Orthodox Church in America (and by this I mean all the jurisdictions) is the fact that in a little over 200 years on this continent, we have been blessed by the showing forth of many saints. And not only have saints been shown forth, but many of those saints have been among our hierarchs. Men such as St. Innocent of Alaska and Metropolitan of Moscow, St. John of Shangai and San Francisco, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, St. Tikhon, Confessor of the faith, Bishop of America and later Patriarch of Moscow. St. Nicholai of Zicha who served for a while as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s Seminary – who had also been imprisoned by the Nazis in one of their death camps. These are amazing figures, aided by saints both among the laity and the clergy. Nor are we without martyrs: St. Peter the Aleut, St. Juvenaly, St. John Kochurov (who labored in Chicago and was the first priest martyred by the Bolsheviks) St. Alexander Hotivitzky (who was marytred as he sought to protect the Cathedral of the Savior in Moscow). In less than two hundred years this Church, like its mother church, has yielded a great abundance of holy saints. There are many others whom I have not mentioned here as well as many more who are even now being considered for canonization.

To me, this peculiar history which is marked by radically brilliant manifestations of holiness in the lives of saints, is utterly essential when we think about our work here in this land. We were not rich to a large extent in coming to America. Certainly the generations of miners and steel workers who built so much of the Church, including such institutions as St. Tikhon’s, were far from rich. They gave their life’s blood for this Church.

By the same token, we will not flourish in our own days by any other means than did the saints. We are frequently clumsy (to say the least) when it comes to administration (come visit my parish). We are scandalous in our relationships with other Orthodox (the alphabet soup that greets those who first look at Orthodoxy in America is outrageous). And yet solving these problems – something that I will gladly work towards all of my life – is still not of crucial importance. We’ll get by.

But we will never survive without holiness. Without absurd and audacious forays into forgiveness we will never fulfill the mission God has given us in this land. Without leaps of faith that would make the heart faint, we will never begin to be what God has called us to.

However, my hope rides exceedingly high. My hope is founded always on God, and on this particular heritage we have as Orthodox in North America. A farmer does not take his best seed and sow it because he has no hope of a rich harvest. We were planted by saints and that not by accident. The providence of God has given us a rich heritage, it seems to me, for one of two purposes (if not both). Either in His foreknowledge He knew that only a Church planted by saints could do anything in this land and in this culture. This hypothesis I call the “survival hypothesis.” Without saints Orthodoxy would never have survived in this land. The other (which I favor) is that God in His foreknowledge planted the Church in this land by saints that it might flourish as a Church of saints. This I think of as the “hidden hypothesis.” For if this is so, we are still waiting for its fulfillment.

But I am deeply hopeful. I have no idea what I will see in the years that remain to me. But I know that my children are better Orthodox Christians than I am and that they are not alone. I am very encouraged by what I see coming from our seminaries. I say this as someone who knows what is coming out of other seminaries in America.

I served for a number of years as a reader for the General Ordination Exams, taken by seniors in Episcopal Seminaries. Over the course of my terms (through most of the 90’s), the tests became easier and the answers less satisfactory. There has been a “dumbing down” of seminaries in many denominations. Such seed will eventually bear fruit and show itself for what it is (some would argue that this process had begun long before).

I met today with a young couple from my deanery who will enter seminary this fall. My heart soars – not because this young man is the greatest scholar they will ever see – but because I know that this man will make a fine priest. He will not waste what has been given him.

We are all standing on the shoulders of giants in our American Orthodoxy. Perhaps its why so many that I talk to can see so far and ache for a greater fullness in our Church life here. I make no claims as a prophet, but I believe we shall not be disappointed.