Posts tagged Frontier Orthodoxy
On Friday morning, many of us in the American Orthodox world learned of the untimely repose of His Eminence, Archbishop Job, bishop of Chicago and the Diocese of the Midwest in the OCA. This is sad news for both the OCA and the Orthodox Churches in America across jurisdictional lines. As the member of the executive board of SOCHA who is in the OCA and as one whose life has been directly affected by him, I have decided to write a personal reflection on what his ministry means to me and what I hope it can mean to us in America as we move forward.
On January 18, 2003, Archbishop Job ordained me to the priesthood at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Following this liturgy, knowingly in the presence of extended family who were not Orthodox, he gave basic but important pastoral advice that I remember to this day—a priest must love his parishioners. Love must come above all other feelings. Everything must be done out of love for them. I am sure I am hardly alone. I would think that all priests remember the advice given to them on the day of their ordination. Perhaps, this was Archbishop Job’s standard admonition at priestly ordinations. Regardless, this advice speaks of the concern His Eminence had for the life of the Church. It must be founded on love because that is how people are to know that we are the true followers of Christ. That is our evangelism! If a person wants to know how to succeed in parish life, both in terms of sustaining the life already there and increasing the life of the parish, one need only read St. John the Theologian’s epistles. We don’t need schemes and programs. We need love.
Not long after my ordination, he showed me that love personally. I had applied to a few doctoral programs in the Midwest, but had heard negatively from all but one. Therefore, I was likely soon to be assigned to a mission in the Upper Midwest. Not long after +Job and I had begun discussing the details, Saint Louis University, the only school from which I had not yet heard, accepted me and offered me a research assistantship to cover my costs. I did not know what to do, so Lorie and I received counsel from two priests whom we trusted. They suggested we lay it out before +Job, which we did. His Eminence, being reasonable and prudent, agreed with the perspective of these priests, that academic doors do not open often, and gave me his blessing to attend SLU. He knew of our commitment to being in the Diocese of the Midwest and he spoke of how things are directed by God’s providence. Not all bishops would have done this, but Archbishop Job did. He has done much more for other priests, for I have seen that as well. Mine is but a small example of how he loved his priests.
As a pastor who has spent several years attached to another parish, where I assisted the rector in his ministry, and who has been pastoring a mission with its own turbulant yet admirable history, I have come to see the full dimensions of what it means for a priest to love his congregation. When times are difficult, we are there. When times are good, we are there. When people cower in the sight of parish life and run, we remember that love entails free will and allow them such freedom, all the while keeping the door open for their return. When parishioners struggle with aspects of Church life or tradition, or even something we have said, we show patience and endurance. In rare cases, we even know that loving the congregation means the vine must occasionally be pruned, painful though this process is to all. We also know that when the times are difficult, we are the ones who must step up and take the blame, for we will receive it, and when times are joyous, we praise the parish.
Archbishop Job himself knew of the struggles of loving the flock under his care. I have seen him in deanery meetings, providing solutions to problems. We have all seen him as he stood up and asked whether the allegations of financial misconduct were true or false. Yes, it is true that it took behind-the-scenes cajoling and much support to encourage him but he did it. He asked the question all other OCA bishops were too scared to ask or refused to ask. What he did was not miraculous, but it was episcopal, it was what a bishop must do—ultimately, when push comes to shove, stand for what is good and true. Would that the Churches in America would have many bishops willing to ask such questions and take such stands!
We have also seen His Eminence demonstrate extreme humility even when there was no need to do so. We know he prostrated before Bishop Nikolai and asked forgiveness. This was unnecessary, but in the heat of the moment, Archbishop Job chose to forego any pretense, even though there would have been no sin at all not to have done this.
Recently, I and the parishioners here in Fargo, North Dakota, also benefitted from his willingness to stand firm and further the development of Orthodox Christianity within the diocese of the midwest. Archbishop Job responded to the actions and appeals of the faithful themselves. Not every bishop would have done this, but he did what he felt was best for the growth of Orthodoxy in the Upper Midwest.
Ultimately, it is this concern for the ongoing health of Orthodoxy that I hope we take from his memory. He cared about the health of Orthodoxy in the Midwest. We must care for the health of Orthodoxy wherever we are. Without good health, it will not matter what methods are devised for uniting Orthodox jurisdictions in America. Without good health, it will not matter what we enact in our parishes to build them into even more loving communities. Without good health, we will fall far too short of the glory of God to attract others or save ourselves. Archbishop Job has served Christ’s Holy Church to this end. May we do the same, and may his memory be eternal!
It was hard for me to tell what was funnier—Snoopy or my son Micah. Micah had not seen the Charlie Brown Christmas special before and so I took it upon myself to make sure we watched it. At three years of age, he was definitely at the age of cartoons. We were eating popcorn. He was sitting cross legged on the floor. The bowl had been balancing on his legs, where his shins crossed, but had tipped forward, scattering popped corn on the blue-grey berber in front of him.
Micah doesn’t share daddy’s physique-challenged predicament. He is nothing but sinew and bone, but on this night, his belly popped up and plunged down with the rapidity of the lid on a John Deere’s smoke stack as he laughed his so-deep alto three-year-old laugh. As enjoyable as that laugh was, we were watching the Charlie Brown special because I had one thing in mind, Linus’s monologue about the Gospel-centered meaning of Christmas and the change in behavior it brought to the other characters in the cartoon. The cartoon ends with “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!”
I was reminded of this event because our parish has just hosted its first St. Nicholas Day retreat as part of celebrating the memory and intercessions of St. Nicholas, our parish patron. St. Nicholas, though a saint, is hardly known as such by most in America, but in my mind, he has always been linked to Christmas and gift giving ever since I learned of his story (before becoming Orthodox).
I realize that others of you are on the Julian Calendar and so that day will not arrive until December 19th. Regardless, St. Nicholas Day falls during a fast. For American Orthodox, this fast occurs right in the midst of a time of feasting and stuffing oneself, at least for many within the surrounding culture. It also occurs in the midst of the same kind of consumerism that bothered Charlie Brown so much. Ok, the consumerism is now worse.
How we got to this point has a fascinating history all of its own. Early Puritans had actually made it illegal to mention St. Nicholas’ name and celebrate Christmas, but it did not take all that long, historically, for Christmas to begin spreading across the country in the nineteenth century. During this time, the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” in which “Santa Claus” is portrayed as an elf, gained popularity. In the twentieth century, Christmas became a much more public spectacle, not something confined to home and church alone. Initially, this helped in some ways to lessen the commercialization because the focus shifted from store windows to community activities (such as the festival surrounding the city Christmas tree on main street). In the midst of these changes, “Santa Claus” became a grossly overweight old man, though apparently he was still able to go up and down the chimney with the same agility as his old, magical elfin self. Before long, however, the commercialization not only reestablished itself, but flourished even more precisely because the celebration of Christmas had morphed into “the pluralism of a publicly celebrated Christmas. … Still, we cannot overlook our own collusion … customers have responded approvingly to strategies that fuse the spheres of sacred and profane into a compelling certainty.” More on this sacred/profane problem in a second.
So, here we Orthodox sit, observing the feast of a saint, whose vita (written life) tells us he fasted on Wednesday and Fridays even as an infant (not suckling on those days), in the midst of a season that might be labeled pluralistic, secular, even profane. What are we to make of our situation? Even our own practices have changed during our time in America. Increasingly, we have more and more Orthodox parishes celebrating according to the “new calendar” or Gregorian calendar rather than the Julian calendar, or “old calendar,” for which December 25 falls on January 7 (on the new calendar, which American society follows). With an increasing number of both converts to Orthodoxy and third and fourth generations of traditionally Orthodox families, many of the traditional Eastern European cultural practices surrounding Christmas have faded. To be fair, of course, some families have held fast to those religio-cultural traditions and there are new immigrants arriving every day. Nonetheless, many parishes are filled with people whose great-grandparents or grandparents kept the sviata vechera (“holy supper”) on Christmas Eve but who do not hold it themselves.
In the midst of the ever changing, perhaps ever secularizing, trajectory of Christmas in America, the Nativity Fast stands as an opportunity to solidify our calling as Orthodox in America. I’m not saying the discipline of fasting before Christmas has not changed during the course of Church history. It has. What I am saying is that keeping the fast anchors our Orthodox praxis in contemporary America.
Fasting reminds us poignantly that we are not of this world. American society has it bass ackwards and frankly, so do a lot of American Christians (including—alas—Orthodox). No longer are there really twelve days of Christmas, which would start on Christmas day. Instead, we have about thirty days of food, shopping, and advertisements. We go from one Christmas party to another and in between load up on some extra baking and cooking of our own. The average American gains a small amount of weight during a time of preparation for the Nativity of Christ and a minority gains significantly more. My point here is not the evils of gaining a pound or two, especially since one may reenter his or her normal schedule and reestablish a workout routine. My point is that during a time in which we should be preparing for the Nativity of Christ, we are all too often being lazy, gluttonous, or simply disregarding the “true meaning” of the season—that the Crucified and Risen One has entered into the fallen history of our world.
So, what should we do and how can the Nativity Fast anchor us during this time? First, we must find the meaning of Christmas not in touchy feely television specials or the commercialized trimmings but in the Gospel itself—the birth of our Savior, Emmanuel. This will enable us to fast from the misdirected forces around us and within us. Within our own house, for example, we do not “do Santa Claus.” We talk about St. Nicholas and celebrate St. Nicholas Day. We do, however, have Christmas trees and share gifts. Whatever criticisms of me and my family this might encourage you to send my way, I ask that the general point be something we can all agree upon, that we must fast from what distracts us and keep only the things that can help lead us to Christ and the celebration of his Nativity. Avoid the things that distract from the Gospel and perpetuate commericialization.
More than that, when we fast, let us keep the culinary fast as well, but go one step farther: keeping ourselves to cheap foods. Eating food that was cheap and common was at the heart of the fasting of the Desert Fathers. Yet, today, we can spend a fair amount of money on shrimp and organic produce. Let us discipline our bodies, for that same discipline will carry over into other spheres of our lives. Let us repent for the sins we have committed. Let us remind ourselves that all is from God, and not ourselves. Let us spend less on ourselves, to have more for others. Let us be thankful.
The second thing we should do is question the simple sacred/profane distinction that has come to characterize this season. Fr. Alexander Schmemann has discussed this in his book For the Life of the World in a way more profound than I could do. One way to do this would be to encourage the watching of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Yep, that’s right! In the midst of commercialization and secularization, I am saying we should watch a cartoon program aired by ABC. Let us all laugh at Snoopy as we journey to the climactic monologue from the Gospel of Luke. Let us also be willing to have Christmas trees, share Christmas letters and Christmas cards, and bake and prepare Christmas meals for family and friends. We are Orthodox, after all, not New England Puritans. Discernment is required to do this appropriately, however, and so we should not simply accept all of the commercialized and secularized aspects of Christmas. We are not non-Christians celebrating a secular version of the feast, with Santa the giant elf (or morbidly obese man), flying deer, and no connection between gift giving and The Gift Himself. The history of how America celebrates Christmas will continue to be written. I proffer that it will continue to become increasingly secularized. For those of us who are grounded in the Nativity fast, however, preparing for the birth of Christ, none of that will dissuade us from knowing and proclaiming, “For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord.”
 Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 159, 161.
In conjunction with the recent podcast concerning the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America, I thought I would publish a special, extra entry for Frontier Orthodoxy. I still plan on writing two additional columns this month. For this entry, however, I wish to provide a basic timeline of the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America (FOGCPJA). This timeline may be useful when listening to the recent podcast on American Orthodox History over at Ancient Faith Radio.
I also wish to note that I failed to make an important connection within the interview itself. Near the beginning of the podcast, I mentioned the difficulties Fr. Boris Burden had with Metropolitan Platon. I meant to return to this later to note that the tense relationship between the two may have also been a factor that excluded the Metropolia from membership. It was not the only factor, as I mentioned the FOGCPJA’s requirement that each jurisdiction be under a Mother Church/Patriarch, but it may well have played a role. Metropolitan Benjamin (Moscow Patriarchate) relied quite heavily on Fr. Boris Burden.
I should further note that Phillies’s membership in the Masons may not have been as ill received since Archbishop Athenagoras and Metropolitan Antony were also Masons. Although Masonic membership would have likely concerned Fr. Boris Burden, it is possible that Metropolitan Benjamin showed some restraint in this regard.
Fall of 1942 (September or October): The Selective Service attempted to draft Fr. John Gelsinger. When that happened, Fr. John Gelsinger, and his father, Fr. Michael Gelsinger, contacted George E. Phillies, a family friend and local attorney in Buffalo, New York.
October 9, 1942: Phillies appealed to the federal authorities, via General Lewis B. Hershey, having gone before the local and state selective service boards. The response from Washington D.C. was that they needed to see proof of an organized Orthodox Church in America. In response to this, the hierarchs of the four primary jurisdictions met.
Fr. Michael Gelsinger (New York Syrian) and Fr. Boris Burden (Moscow Patriarchate) were the instrumental people behind the movement. Fr. Michael received commitments from Archbishop Antony Bashir and Archbishop Athenagoras and Fr. Boris Burden convinced Metropolitan Benjamin and the Bishop Dionisije, the Serbian bishop.
At the subsequent hearing at the Pentagon, Bishop Germanos, an auxiliary bishop of Constantinople, was the only testifying witness. U.S. Senator James Mead (NY, hometown of Buffalo) and Representative James Wadsworth (NY) also appealed on behalf of the Orthodox Church.
December 8, 1942: Major Simon P. Dunkle signed the paperwork instructing the selective service of New York to recognize Fr. John Gelsinger as a priest and providing Orthodox the Opportunity to enlist as Orthodox. Orthodox priests were granted the opportunity to serve as chaplains.
Phillies hailed this as the first time the four primary jurisdictions had provided a united front in America. He quickly built upon this momentum to pursue another venture: amending New York state law for religious corporations. He did this because his reading of the laws of New York convinced him that it was possible the Roman Catholic Church might claim sole legal right to the terms Greek, Catholic, and Orthodox. He also had found no legal incorporation of an Orthodox Church (jurisdiction) that would mitigate this. Individual parishes had incorporated, but the only large scale incorporations were Roman Catholic, such as the Greek Catholic incorporation in Pennsylvania.
February 10, 1943: George E. Phillies wrote to Gov. Dewey, recommending that the hierarchs visit and Dewey replies by stating they should do so after the signing.
February 19, 1943: Charles J. Tobin, secretary of the New York State Catholic Welfare Committee, wrote to State Senator Charles Burney, objecting to the proposed legislation, claiming that only Rome could use the terms Catholic or Greek Catholic.
February 25, 1943: Rev. Philemon Tarnavsky (chancellor of the diocese of Philadelphia) also wrote to Gov. Dewey and agreed with Tobin. He objected to the use of the word Catholic, which he said was linked to the Holy See in Rome. He even noted that the word Orthodox is also used by Greek Catholics, questioning whether Orthodox should use it as a self designation. Rev. Turnavsky was a Greek Catholic himself.
March 5, 1943: Episcopal diocese of Western New York wrote to support the bill (Rt. Rev. Bp Cameron J. Davis)
March 8, 1943: Phillies asked “Charlie” [Burney] for a moving picture crew and claimed there were five million Orthodox in America.
March 10, 1943: Tobin wrote to consul of the governor to object again. He included the assessment of Monsignor Tarnavsky.
March 15, 1943: Memorandum by Phillies stated the purpose(s), excluded the Metropolia, responded to Roman Catholic critics, and noted that the FOGCPJA was set up to parallel the federal/state division in the United States of America.
March 25, 1943: Governor Thomas Dewey signed the bill.
August 2, 1943: The Buffalo Evening News called Phillies the “lay head,” noted that he had dual membership in the GOC and the PEC, and was a Mason.
August 8, 1943: Concelebration.
August 22, 1943: Divine Liturgy in Kleinhans Hall (GOC too small). Archbishop Athenagoras presided, with Metropolitan Antony and Bishop Bogdan assisting (Ukrainian). By this time, the Ukrainians and Carpatho-Russians who were under Constantinople were participating in the FOGCPJA. A small internal disagreement ensued, because Frs. Boris Burden and Michael Gelsinger thought the service should have been in a larger non-Orthodox church building rather than one that was strictly secular.
Bishop Dionisije was bothered by the fact that the Carpatho-Russians and Ukrainians were under Constantinople and had other unnamed concerns. He soon quit participating.
October 3, 1943: At a meeting in Bayonne, NJ, the officers of the FOGCPJA passed the “Bayonne Resolution.” This resolution stated all officers of the Federation must be Orthodox, with no sacramental participation in non-Orthodox churches. Another problem that arose was that the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America had received a letter (likely sent by Phillies) asking for membership.
October 7, 1943: Articles signed by the bishops and the Federation is legally incorporated. Archbishop Athenagoras had been chosen as the presiding hierarch. Fr. Peter Horton-Billard was chosen as secretary, replacing Fr. Boris Burden. Phillies remained the elected chancellor.
October 8, 1943: Burden called the elections “conditional.”
November 1, 1943: Russians threatened to leave over concerns with Phillies.
December 18, 1943: Marriage served jointly by Fr. E Wolkodoff, a Metropolia priest, and PE priest J. Coseby. Metropolitan Benjamin suspended the priest. At this point, the Federation was suspended.
February 2, 1944: Meeting: 1) no “lay head” 2) hierarchs are the leaders 3) Orthodox cannot be communicants elsewhere 4) “chancellor” means “legal advisor” and nothing more. Metropolitan Benjamin also said he had the support of Patriarch Sergius.
Around this same time, Patriarch Sergius wrote to Metropolitan Benjamin, offering permission to be active in the Federation, but Metropolitan Benjamin and Fr. Boris Burden were preparing to renege on the FOGCPJA.
Early October 1944: Metropolitan Benjamin said Phillies was no longer the chancellor. Phillies claimed he was.
November, 1944: Russians officially pulled out. By early 1945, the FOGCPJA was basically dead, though Metropolitan Antony Bashir kept it alive on paper.
One issue that has come to the fore in discussions at SOCHA’s website has been the use of historical sources. This got me thinking about what it means to be an historical theologian. It is not strictly the same as being an historian, though members of SOCHA, such as Matthew Namee, may consider themselves to be precisely that. Yet, historical theology is not systematic theology or philosophical theology. It is, after all, historical. So, where to start?
Let me start with the term theologian in historical theologian. Evagrios, though not a saint of the Church, did correctly note that a theologian is “he who prays rightly.” Theologians pray. They become spiritual fathers and leaders. They defend the faith. They build up the Body of Christ. Sometimes, they even heal people, feed people through miracles, and raise the dead. That is what theologians do when they “do theology.”
When combined with a contemporary, Western understanding of “theology,” which tends to mean treatises and reflections about God and Christianity, theology serves to articulate a vision of God, to uplift the faithful, to defend the faith, to express discernment, and to further a life of prayerful contemplation. This sort of theology does so making use of systematic, philosophical methods with contemporary concerns in mind (e.g., how does the Christian faith affect women and minorities?). Therefore, Orthodox theology in our current context is a movement from active prayer and contemplation and asceticism to intellectual apprehension and articulation of one’s spiritual experience(s).
What makes the historical theologian unique is that he or she does not concentrate only on the systematic and philosophical, but descends into the murkiness of the historical, for all that it implies, including overlap with anthropology, archaeology, and sociology. This assumes, of course, that the “historical theologian” brings his or her own experience and questions to historical studies. For this reason, an ascetic rigor of dispassionate openness to the historical evidence becomes paramount. Indeed, the historical theologian can only be faithful to the historical witness if he or she is able to maintain a healthy balance and dispassion in the face of his or her own theological experience and questions. Dispassion is a key factor here, but not in the sense of not caring, but in the sense of fighting the passions. The historical theologian must never allow an agenda to have a passionate hold on his or her own soul.
The basis for this understanding lies not so much in the historical distance between the Orthodox historical theologian and the people and events under study, but in the deifying or sanctifying distance that lies between the historical theologian and people and events in question. For God is the God of the living, and a cloud of witnesses surrounds and uplifts the historical theologian as he or she engages in prayer within an essentially structured community. In this experience, the difference in sanctification between a saint, or the witness of the fathers, and the historical theologian becomes all too obvious. Therefore, as a matter of humility, the Orthodox historical theologian seeks to learn from God’s presence in his saints throughout all the ages, and so remains open to the historical context rather than simply and anachronistically applying a contemporary and personal agenda.
The results of the historical investigation are then brought to bear upon the theological expressions at the systematic and philosophical level. In turn, these re-investigated expressions and understandings are applied to the realm of theology proper (prayer, discernment, and Christian action within the community).
“Historical theology,” therefore, denotes a circular process. It does not exist as an end in itself, but constantly evokes reflection and investigation on the part of the religious scholar. This process begins with an ascetic prayer life, expresses that experience through academic intellectual means, embraces and investigates history, and applies the results of historical inquiry to the academic intellectual expressions, which together shape prayer. As such, this circle is not a continual repeating of the same things, but the same process experienced anew each time. When done properly, historical theology becomes one small means by which we can circle the mind back up that downward spiral we have created since the first moment of Adam and Eve’s existence.
The following is an introductory note for a new column to be featured here on OrthodoxHistory.org, Frontier Orthodoxy, written by SOCHA Executive Director Fr. Oliver Herbel:
Glory to Jesus Christ!
After some prayer and thought, I have decided to start a bi-monthly column building on my work for the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA). My purpose here is to use the American Orthodox context as a launching pad for essays and reflections. For those of you who have not heard of SOCHA, please check out the OrthodoxHistory.org website. There is much in Christian history that is fascinating, and the history of the Orthodox Christians in America is no exception. Here in America, we can see the fruits of much hard work for the Gospel as well as the large open wounds of sin as well as the humorous and quirky. Okay, to many Americans, Orthodoxy Herself is quirky, but I mean the really quirky odd things, like the Bulgarian monk who became a ghost story for Bayhorse, Idaho.
A few of you may know of me from my academic work. Some of you know of me because I wrote two essays on OCANews.org concerning the jurisdictional disunity in early American Orthodoxy. Some of you know of me because of the effects of my asking questions during a Q and A portion of a closed-door clergy meeting at the last Antiochian convention. Although each one of these is a legitimate lens through which to view me, I think you all deserve a much more personal introduction. You may see the educational portion of my life from my CV, available here.
I am a product of the modern Upper Midwest. I was born in Minot, North Dakota. I have lived in Niche, ND, Bowbells, ND, and Lemmon, SD. I visited my maternal grandparents’ dairy farm near Fertile, MN, a few times every year as I grew up. I was raised to hunt and fish. I was raised believing that honesty is a virtue that should never be in short supply—that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing of which to be ashamed. I was raised never to take family for granted, even when they cause you headaches, and I was raised to work hard, harder, and harder still. “Quit” should never be in one’s vocabulary. Oh, and don’t forget, “boys don’t cry.”
I have been married since 1996 to my wife, Lorie, and we have been very blessed to have been given the task of raising three beautiful young children (Micah, Macrina, and Anastasia, or “Tasha,” as she has come to be called). We have lived in North Dakota, Minnesota, New York, and Missouri. I once spent a little over a month in Romania.
Of course, I am more than simply what I was raised to be. I am also the result of lessons learned along the way. I continue to enjoy the outdoors and sports, though the latter has been reduced to fencing (foil and epee), my on again off again weight lifting commitments, and watching tv. I enjoy playing chess, but have not dedicated the time to studying the game as I would like. I also enjoy history, especially Church history, and philosophical theology. I suppose that all makes me half nerd and half jock. Yet, I’m more than that. I have come to see that modesty is a virtue that is in very very very short supply in our culture, that love and kindness are all too often hard to come by, and that courage and fortitude are rare on the issues that count and abundantly present in the face of some of the least important issues in life. Most importantly, I have learned that if one wants to be in the Ark, the Church of Christ propagated through the Apostles, one has to enter the Holy Orthodox Church and put up with the breath taking stench. The other option doesn’t stink, of course, but a rotten smell still beats lungs full of water.
All of these things will come together in this column. I might stick to an issue of American Orthodox history. I might use that same issue to explore the larger American religious scene. I might even use that same issue to explore something in preceding Church history or as a segue to a spiritual/theological reflection. Whatever I write and wherever I go, I assure you I will be the same person whether I am writing on contemporary events, history, or pastoral theology.