The World in Which I Live Exists No More

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Fr Sophrony, King George Island, Antartica (or is it NEPA?)

Below is a reflection, primarily for my fellow classmates of St Tikhon’s Seminary, in which I attempt to faintly articulate thoughts that have passed through my mind over the course of the past year as I serve as a mission priest in the Wild Western Frontier some call Ohio. My optimistic confidence in the truth of my observation is only matched by my pessimism that it will always be so.  

I am an Orthodox priest and it seems that rest of society simply doesn’t know what to do with my kind. Like an antique inherited from great-aunt Stella, they confusedly scan their house, weaving through their modern IKEA picks, trying to find a corner where we might fit. Maybe, we might work as a magazine holder in the guest bathroom?

I recently celebrated a wedding in which the majority of the guests were non-Orthodox. Afterward, holding the cross for veneration at the head of the greeting line, I was ogled by most people as they uncomfortably shuffled past, looking at me and the cross as though I were an ecclesiastical mummy from which one might catch a strange disease. I have received the same puzzled gaze as I walked through the corridors of hospitals or stood in line at the local soup kitchen. One person asked me, “Why are you dressed like an Orthodox priest?” I replied, “Um, because I am an Orthodox priest.”

I might warrant the rebuke that the curiosity invoked by my presence is simply the result of my insistence in going (most) everywhere in a cassock and cross. Be that as it may, I firmly believe that the bewilderment generated by my presence as an Orthodox clergyman is but a small indication of a greater reality: the world in which I live exists no more.

The world that was once structured by a perpetual consciousness of the supernatural and divine has become a world in which it is difficult to believe in anything beyond the pervading reality of fitness centers, sports teams, and Netflix (which is strange considering their inherent ­un-reality). The “spiritual but not religious” are concerned with me and the now. One might say that any concern with the supernatural or afterlife has been superseded by science, but this is even an antiquated statement because for the vast majority, they just don’t care, let them only be entertained.

A world once existed in which a man walking into a hospital with cassock or collar or cross would have been commonplace. The first person to be called in the event of sickness was the pastor or priest. Now chaplain and priest stand awkwardly in the sterile corner (like the sterilized cross on the wall across from the blaring TV), sidelined by cohorts of nurses, doctors, specialists, clinicians, and psychiatrists who are there to do the real work. At best, priest and chaplain seem to serve as emotional supports, like a grown up comfort object, a worn-out doll from the nursery of human evolution.

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And are we any less trivial as churches as we persist in preserving our presence along a Main Street America that exists no more? While we spend a baffling amount of time and money either trying to save our crumbling historical landmarks or beautifying new ones with paint-by-number iconography, across the way is the boarded up “Zion Tabernacle,” down the street is “St Nikolas Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church” with its accompanying congregation of 5 dying old ladies, and the church across town has whitewashed “First Baptist Church” from their sign and draped over it a snazzy new banner announcing “Faith Family Life Center.” First Presbyterian tried to stem the outgoing tide by pushing its only worship service to 11am. Meanwhile, the CrossFit and Starbucks are packed by 7am every Sunday morning.

Hey, wake up Orthodox Church in America! It’s not 1950 anymore. And while this tagline might attract some notice from The Wheel, what I mean to suggest is not that we become relevant (besides, we’d be yet again about 50 years behind the times) but that we understand that Orthodoxy is radically different from the mainstream and will ever remain so. We need to stop pretending that we still live in a world where clergy, religion, and brick-and-mortar churches are a “normal” part of everyday American life; and to form or move to communities in which we can be supported in our endeavor to live our this “strange” thing called Orthodox Christianity. We need to re-group.

We are spread too thin. I’m thinking about St. Nicholas in Weirton, WV. You would be forgiven for missing it, tucked away in a cookie-cutter neighborhood and nestled in between a Seventh-Day Adventist church and a Church of Christ. Founded in 1919, the “new” church was built in the 1970’s when it sat comfortably the 150 that came on an average Sunday. Now, the building lies in desperate need of repairs and Fr Andrew is happy to have 50 on a Sunday, 5 for any other service. He has no deacon, no choir director or choir to speak of, no church educators or catechist, and no other young families to which he and his young wife and daughter can relate. The very walls of the church scream, “nothing has happened here since 1975!” What kind of impact can such a pathetic and insipid church have on the larger Weirton community? About the same measure of impact as the Seventh-day Adventist have next door: nil. And the pattern from which St Nicholas was cut is repeated throughout the valleys of eastern and western Pennsylvania, and indeed throughout much of the Northeast and Midwest United States. There are 20 (yes, 20!!!) canonical Orthodox churches within 25 easy driving miles of St. Nicholas. No doubt 25 miles was a long way in 1919, but we’re not driving a horse and buggy anymore.

Efforts to revitalize communities such as St. Nicholas, at best, bring the same level of vibrancy noticed in similar efforts in other dying faith communities: they start a soup kitchen ministry, they manage to trap a young family, they hold a Lenten retreat, they manage to replace their leaking roof. But the ship is sinking, and America will not notice when yet another obscure church disappears from the Yellow Pages that no one reads anymore. And do you blame them? Who would be excited to come to a church that doesn’t look like anything has happened for the last 30 years, where pictures from the FROCA convention of 1942 still haunt the halls, where the worship is not beautiful, the singing is impossibly dissonant, the people look tired, the priest burnt out, and the Matushka absent (again). Would this inspire you?

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FROCA Bowling Tournament, a long time ago

What if instead, our communities looked a little more like our seminary experience at St. Tikhon’s. Imagine churches bursting to the seams with young families who have intentionally moved to be closer to a vibrant community, rubbing shoulders at daily services with “elders” of the likes of “hot dog” John and Dr. David. A place where its not unusual to find a house packed on a Sunday night with Orthodox Christians playing games and sharing music; a place where craftsmanship in music and the arts is cultivated and appreciated; a place where the divine services are cherished rather than endured; a place where education takes place within a holistic Orthodox context, supported by trained Orthodox teachers; a place where meeting a monk at the local grocery store is commonplace, a place where confession with spiritual giants, the likes of Fr. Sergius, is treasured and preserved; a place that produces saints.

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St Tikhon’s Monastery during the Memorial Day Pilgrimage at the grave of Met. Leonty

Why does this have to be the exception, a short-lived dream before being sent back into the “real world”? What if we ceased to be content with sending our seminary graduates to wither on the vine at some forgotten centennial parish simply to keep the doors open and the few parishioners from having to join the Orthodox church across the street. What if we instead sent them to promising communities such as Albion, MI, Santa Rosa, CA, and Charleston, SC to support and build upon the foundations already lain and make these places true beacons of our Orthodox faith and to multiply these centers throughout the US based on their experience. What if we sent mission teams consisting of experienced priests, deacons, choir directors and singers, architects and artists to strategic locations to plant monasteries and parishes that are real centers of Orthodox Christianity. What if we lived in intentional communities where our children and young adults could be supported on a day-to-day basis by relationships with friends who shared a common faith.

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St Seraphim’s, Santa Rosa, CA

Perhaps, I need to wake up and realize that it’s 2018 and there are 12 (nope, make that 13) jurisdictions, not one unified Orthodox Church. Shouldn’t our first step be resuscitating our ecclesiastical body? No, because I think that re-grouping as the OCA alone could realize the pipe dream outlined above. There’s simply not enough time to wait around for all 13 jurisdictions to realize they’re a dying breed.

There are 36 OCA parishes in Ohio and 80 in Pennsylvania. Now, if you calculate that almost every one of those churches has at least a priest, most a choir director, and many a deacon. Add to this the number of pious, energetic, and talented lay people in these communities and that’s a huge amount of human resources. Think of what could be accomplished if even 10% of these human resources could be put in service of building a few vibrant centers of Orthodoxy in these areas. Spread out as they are now they can accomplish nothing but “keeping the doors open.” However, together they could have a full-liturgical life with a monastery, an Orthodox school, workshops and maybe even a seminary or college.

However, for starters: we need to be intentional about missions. Instead of “blessing” a mission to form when a few Orthodox people in a random location decide they want one, what if we instead, as a national Church, performed thorough research to determine locations most suitable for a mission and then sent mission teams to those areas. What if we took a model from Christ’s own approach and had missionaries go out “two-by-two.” How much more effectual would it be to have two clergy families who would be able to support one another, emotionally, spiritually, and practically. The obvious retort to this idea is that the OCA already struggles to support one mission priest, let alone two. Yes, but is it any better to have an isolated mission priest whose ministry is severely jeopardized by lack of practical support, who’s perpetually depressed, and who eventually burns out?

The current “strategy” (though certainly not intentional or thought out) is quantity over quality: it’s better to have as many church signs out there regardless of the quality of the Orthodoxy behind those church signs. I think it’s high time to re-think this “strategy” and to have fewer missions but missions that offer the potential of becoming real Orthodox communities in the vein outlined above. We are never going to gain any significant influx of converts if our idea of Orthodoxy is reduced to the necessity of four walls, an icon, and a priest. We need to present America with the experience that St. Vladimir’s envoys enjoyed and this takes a much higher quality and intentionality than is possible in the current “quantity approach” to our missions.

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A common response to the criticism leveled against the “quantity” approach is the “McDonald’s analogy”: McDonalds has no fear of putting its arches on every street corner. This is true, from where I write there are 30 McDonald’s within 20 miles; in Weirton, WV one can choose from 11 different locations to get that signature taste of a Big Mac or McCafe. But, that’s just it, at any one of those restaurants I can expect the same service and food. McDonald’s doesn’t just let anyone throw up a shack and serve whatever they want, there is a very specific set of expectations, both from the customer and the company. No one in their right mind would open up a franchise with a 100 year-old building and one employee to fry burgers, take orders, and wait tables. And yet, how often do we allow this to happen in our parishes? We have everything from fully staffed five-star restaurants to roadside shacks, all claiming to members of the Orthodox Church and with no discernible way to tell whether one will get a delicious meal or food poisoning.

Secondly, we need hierarchs that are thinkers and leaders in this movement. But, if anyone is spread too thin, it is our hierarchs. How can we expect them to do anything more than “putting out fires” and jolting about to parish anniversary celebrations when their dioceses are so large? My own bishop is responsible for over 90 parishes! We are a hierarchal Church and the obedience expected of our clergy and laity to their bishops must be matched by the vision and leadership of our metropolitan, archbishops, and bishops. Instead of drowning our bishops in committees and celebrations, we should encourage and allow space for them to nurture new ideas and approaches to the guidance of our Church in talks, articles and books. We should expect them to be the frontrunners in the fields of missions, theology, liturgical arts, and administration and not, as we see now, simply “first responders.” Efforts to re-group our church communities would greatly aid our hierarchs in fulfilling this expectation. What if instead of 36 struggling parishes in Ohio, Bishop PAUL of the Midwest had 9 vibrant parishes, parishes that could even support his hierarchal functions and duties rather than just being time-sinks.

Finally, we’re not going to wait around. It is impossible, at least in the near future, to assume that bishops will be perfectly willing to shut down “non-performing” parishes, especially when those parishes come with deep historic roots and financial endowments. It can be expected that parishes like All Saints in Wolf Run or Sts. Peter & Paul in Lakewood will continue until their last, gasping breath. Be that as it may, young clergy and laity can’t be expected to quietly wait around for the next twenty years in hopes that something changes. We’re not going to wait around. We are drawn by the centers of Orthodoxy as by a lodestone and feel that it’s “do or die” to either move to these centers or to help new ones to be planted. We aren’t content rotting away in forgotten parishes, dusting the coffins of “the golden years.” What is more, our children will certainly not be content to languish in these communities where they feel isolated, alone, and strange to everyone around them.

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A typical mission priest and his family

No one is saved alone, but in community. Orthodoxy is not an ideology, a theology, or a religion, it is a communion of Being and we cannot realize that communion unless we experience it as a Body, a real, living Body of Christ. The immigrant communities that founded a vast majority of our parishes are no more and there is no use in calling out through the graveyards for them to be resurrected. We must plant new communities, not just churches, not just places where the Liturgy is served in a dry, dead, and lifeless manner twice a month by a supply priest, but a real community where we and our children can know that the world ushered in at Pentecost is still alive and well and will never be defeated; a world in which white-bearded elders, pious widows, courageous priests in cassocks visiting the sick, matushki laughing together while serving the needy, lay people carefully crafting beautiful icons, young men and women joyfully singing Akathists is both commonplace and breathtaking. That world does exist and I want every fiber of my being to be spent in nourishing it from Sea to Shining Sea.

Fr Sergius
Fr. Sergius, Abbot of St Tikhon’s Monastery

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