Editor’s note: The following homily was delivered by St. Nikolai Velimirovich in America, sometime between his (second) arrival in America in 1946 and his death in 1956. It was published in the journal Orthodox America, volume 19, number 5. Years ago, I received permission from Orthodox America to publish the text of the homily, but for some reason I never did it, until now. The whole homily is excellent, but the last part is especially relevant to Orthodox Americans, addressing our history, the ethnicity/language issues, and the way forward. It’s perceptive, forward-thinking, and pastorally sensitive.
I feel greatly honored in being called to speak to you in this great city on this day, the Sunday of Orthodoxy. For this day is indeed our pan-Orthodox Thanksgiving Day, because on this day for the last thousand years we have been giving thanks to Almighty God for the spiritual victories He granted to the holy Fathers of our Church and, through them, to us.
When I mention the Fathers of the Church, I am thinking first of all of the Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the first of which was held in A.D. 325 and the last in 787. These Seven Councils represent the seven greatest spiritual battles in the history of Christendom. Like seven pillars of light (the light being Christ), they have illumined the path of our Church through the ages. They remind us of the Biblical words, Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars (Prov. 9:1). They fought against all the apostasies, heresies, pagan teachings and practices, against nebulous oriental occultism and pretentious philosophic theories contrary to Christ’s revelations.
The seventh of these Councils, which we specially celebrate today, confirmed the canons and regulations of the preceding six and added new ones. Therefore, Orthodox churches the world over are today offering thanks to God for having granted to Christendom those spiritual giants in the first thousand years, when all Christendom was united in one Church.
Besides those Fathers of the Ecumenical Coun-cils, we remember today all the other luminaries of early Church history, which no storm of succeeding events could extinguish. Some of them were great theologians, teachers, and preachers; others were extraordinary ascetics; still others were wonder-working intercessors, or wise leaders and organizers of Christian communities, or successful missionaries, or glorious martyrs for Christ, both male and female. By their words and deeds, by their wisdom and life examples, they continue to edify and assist us in following Christ. All that they taught and wrote is part of what we call the Sacred Tradition of the Church. They represent a precious treasure in our Church, which is God’s family. And therefore we are lifting our hearts with thanks to God for this precious treasure. Yes, this is our pan-Orthodox Thanksgiving Day.
The examples and experiences of these holy men and women are like precious stones left to posterity as their loving legacy. What are these precious stones? They are as many as the number of Christian virtues, but I will discuss here just three of the most essential for our modern times. They are: spiritual vision, moral discipline, and competition in doing good.
Our Lord Jesus Christ revealed to mankind an invisible world incomparably greater than the visible. The spiritual horizon which He opened to men was a much greater wonder than the physical horizon of distant galaxies discovered by modern telescopes. He spoke not like other teachers and philosophers—by hypotheses and theories and probabilities, but by authority of an eyewitness who descended from that great heavenly world in order to draw us to it. He called that world the Kingdom of Heaven. It was the most staggering and gladdening annunciation since the creation of the world. It wiped away the tears of mothers for their dead children, and the tears of children for their deceased parents. “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad,”He said to the mournful world. “Open your spiritual eyes and behold a glorious Kingdom beyond, in which the King is your real Father. And if you cannot easily open your inner sight, look through Me; I am your telescope. Believe me and follow me. Rejoice, and again I say, Rejoice!”
An English lady happened to be present at a Serbian funeral service and heard Orthodox priests chanting repeatedly: “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” She was shaken and asked, “Is it proper to sing a song of joy over a dead person?” “For us, death is not evil,” I answered, “sin alone is evil.”
Many times I asked holy monks on Mount Athos—Greeks, Serbs, Russians, Romanians: “What is the best means to keep a person from sinning?” Their usual answer was: “The constant vision of the heavenly world.” A Greek elder on Karoulia said, “You must exercise in spiritual vision every day until the other world is clearly opened to you.”
It is no wonder that many Protestants call our Orthodox Church transcendent. Through all centuries and generations we have been taught to strive toward the realization and visualization of the other world.
In many of our church hymns, saints and martyrs are glorified because they “gave up the cheap for the precious,” or “the mortal for the immortal,” or “the transitory for the eternal.” Their motive for such a choice was the spiritual vision of the Kingdom of Heaven as our true fatherland, as the real goal of our travelling and toiling in this physical world of mere symbols and shadows.
Now, since we acquire that spiritual vision of the Kingdom of Heaven by hard spiritual training and exercises, the question arises: How can we make ourselves worthy of that Kingdom? For the end of our physical life is very near and we have to decide quickly, lest it be too late. The answer is: by moral discipline.
What is moral discipline? It is the “narrow path” that leads to eternal life and bliss. It is clearly described and prescribed in the Gospel, and more particularly in the apostolic epistles, and it is exemplified in the lives of holy men and women, some of whom are mentioned in our calendar, and myriads upon myriads of whom are written in Heaven’s Book of Life.
Moral discipline is the way to perfection. And nothing less than perfection is our ideal, according to Christ’s exhortation: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48). To accomplish this tremendous task, our holy ancestors who loved the living Christ courageously climbed up the ladder of perfection, step by step. The steps were: incessant prayer, meditation, obedience, humility, meekness, self-restraint, weeping, watchfulness, forgiveness, repentance, sacrificing everything—even their own body. They trained themselves to abstain not only from every evil deed and word, but from every negative thought. They lived in this world as if they were not of this world. They used things of this world as if they were not using them. They considered themselves to be not citizens of this world but merely visitors.
They vigilantly controlled the inner circle of their souls…observ[ing] every movement of their mind and heart. Thereby they became the greatest psychologists in the world. If you want to know the human soul, read the records of the great spiritual fathers such as Saints Macarius of Egypt, John Chrysostom, Isaac of Syria, and other ascetic fathers. And you will see how impoverished our modern psychology is by comparison. Externally they lived as the most destitute, yet in terms of spiritual wealth, in truth and virtue, they were the richest people. The whole world was not worthy of them. Truly are they called “barefoot aristocrats”.
Today we are remembering these spiritual aristocrats, who by superhuman efforts and God’s grace reached perfection. And we are offering our thanks to Christ for presenting us with this brilliant gallery of beautiful and perfect souls in order that we and our children might emulate them. Therefore, we call this day our Orthodox Thanksgiving Day.
Competition in Doing Good
I come finally to the third point, the third jewel that adorned those of our ancestors whom we are celebrating today. That is the new competition or the competition in doing good. Whereas spiritual vision and moral disciplined have individual bearing, the competition in doing good concerns society. It is the highest social virtue.
Christ proclaims this virtue throughout His Gospel. In essence this teaching is: Give more than you are expected to give, and do more than you are expected to do. The world has been revolutionized by this marvelous doctrine. But the Author of this doctrine was crucified because the world was intoxicated by the old competition in doing evil. When a man was striving by every possible means to get rich, his neighbor tried to get richer. If a Roman patrician had a thousand slaves, another patrician tried to have two thousand. If a pharaoh became famous by some conquest, his successor desired greater fame by greater conquests. While Emperor Caligula was very cruel, Nero tried to be yet more cruel.
The new competition in doing good was as different from the old as traveling in darkness is from traveling in sunshine. Our holy ancestors understood the doctrine of the new competition as the highest social virtue, and they trained themselves in that virtue most strenuously all their life long.
Imagine how marvelously changed this awful world would be if you and I entered this competition of doing good. For instance, if every day we eagerly tried to be more pious than some other pious people, more forbearing, more merciful, more peaceful, more sympathetic, more constructive, more forgiving, more loving than others. And all this not for pride’s sake but for Christ’s sake. Verily it would solve all the crucial social, political, and economic problems in every Christian country, and it would mightily help Christian missions among non-Christian peoples and nations.
We are glorifying the Lord God because our Orthodox forefathers pointed out and exercised this social ideal of a new competition in doing good and because they showed us a glorious personal example to follow. Therefore, in all Orthodox countries and in the diaspora, this day is considered our common Thanksgiving Day.
Let us now turn our gaze from the East to the far West, i.e., to America.
About 150 years ago Orthodox people of every nationality began to come to this New World, first daring individuals, then small groups, until in our days they have reached, by immigration and by birth, a number equal at least to the number of Episcopalians in the United States.
The first settlers were very simple people, hard workers, farmers. They were just the kind of people who were authentic bearers of that threefold Christian ideal, i.e., of spiritual vision, of moral discipline and of competition in doing good. This was the backbone of their souls, inherited from their fathers in the old countries. They lived up to it as much as they could in this country under changed circumstances. And that was, and still is, their greatest contribution to building American civilization, along with their other contributions of sweat and blood—of sweat in mines and factories, and of blood on America’s battlefields.
They never got rich in this rich country, for they had to divide their modest earnings into three parts: one part for their subsistence and the education of their children, a second part they sent to their families in the old country, and the third they gave to church, school, insurance, and charities.
They built churches and called priests from the old country….They preserved their religious traditions. They cultivated the ancient virtues. They delighted in their national music and songs, in their national costumes and dramatic performances. Personally, I have a deep admiration for these old Orthodox generations in America, both for those who passed away in the Faith, and for those who are still living by their faith. They have been a spiritual and constructive component of the New World’s humanity. I dare say that in their own way they have been heroic generations no less than other national groups, now blended into one great American nation. In their modesty these humble people never expected a poet to laud them or a historian to describe them.
Alas, the last of these old Orthodox generations is rapidly passing away. Their sons and grandsons, and their daughters and granddaughters are now coming to the field. And this new generation is American born. They speak good English but little or no Greek, Serbian, Russian, Rumanian, Syrian or Albanian. And no wonder: They attended American schools, many of them served in the US army, they have grown in conformity with the American standard of living, their hearts are not divided between two countries. They are naturally Americans, and they intend to remain American. Accordingly, they have some demands respecting the Church of their fathers.
They want English to replace national languages in church services. They desire to hear sermons in English. This is a legitimate desire. Our wise priests of every national Orthodox Church in this country are already preaching in both English and in their respective national tongue. They are in a difficult position at present, for they have on one hand to be considerate of the elderly (elderly generations of Moms and Pops) who do not understand English well, and on the other hand they are willing to respond to the desire and need of the younger generations. In this matter I think evolution is better than revolution, for the Church is the mother of both the old and the young.
The time may not be far off when there will be a united Orthodox Church in America, which will include all the present Eastern national Churches in this country, a Church with one central administrative authority. I see a tendency toward such an end in each of our now individual Churches. … And when by God’s Providence the time is ripe for the accomplishment of such a unity, I dare not doubt that the venerable heads of all our Orthodox Churches in Europe, Asia, and Africa, always led by the Holy Spirit, will give their blessing for the organization of a new and autonomous sister Church in America.
And now let me make an appeal to all our American Orthodox youth.
America is your cradle and your earthly motherland. It is a wonderful God’s country, and you are expected to be wonderful God’s people in this country. Remember that our greatest contribution to America is of a spiritual and moral nature. And that is precisely what America needs today. That is what every Christian country today needs most of all—in boundless measure. For all nations, especially the Christians nowadays traveling as if in a wilderness of confusion created by senseless materialism and its blind daughter atheism. I offer this to what leading American men and women are saying: “The only hope for us and for the world is to return to religion.” Again I say: “Our hope is in the Church.” You ought to listen to these words, too, and to ponder them. We live in very tragic times, which are made more tragic by easy-going and self-indulgent people who have never read the story of Sodom, of Laish, or of Capernaum.
If I am correct in my observations, the greatest struggle of America these days is the struggle for the priority and superiority of spiritual and moral values over techniques and technological lordship: in other words, for predominance of the spiritual over the material, of goodness over cleverness. The Serbs often say of a clever man: “He is clever as the devil.” They never say: “He is good as the devil.”
America is constantly sounding the sympathetic watchwords: “dignity of man” and “liberty of men and nations.” But the deepest meaning of these watchwords can be found in the sacred teaching of Him without Whom we can do nothing. That meaning is found most explicitly in the threefold program of our Orthodox Church: spiritual vision, moral discipline, and competition in doing good.
For the dignity of man—in other words, the superior value of man—has real and eternal meaning only if you know and acknowledge the Kingdom of Heaven as the true fatherland of all men, from which we originated and to which we are returning as children of one common Father, Who is in heaven. And freedom is most useful, joyful, and sacred if you exercise moral discipline over yourself and practice competition in doing good.
These are the fundamentals upon which you can build your individual and communal happiness. And you have received these fundamentals as a glorious heritage, never to part with. By practicing this spiritual heritage in your daily life, you will become an adornment to America. And through you all Americans will come to know and appreciate our ancient Church of the East and her spiritual heroes, whom we are praising today.