Monday, June 27, 2016

Apostles' Fast begins Today

Today the Holy Church provides us with another opportunity to seriously examine ourselves spiritually. We have reached the beginning of another of the four extended fasting periods of the the Church Year – the Apostles' Fast. This fast is called the Apostles' Fast because it prepares us for the feast of the Preeminent Apostles Peter & Paul on July 12.

Many of us do not like to examine ourselves spiritually. Yes – when we engage in fasting we see its spiritual fruits in us, often through the temptations that show us our weaknesses that regularly are mercifully given to us during these fasting times. Let us dare, brothers and sisters, to look into the spiritual mirror – to examine our faults closely. For only when we seek out our weaknesses, and only when we entreat the Lord's help in this regard, are the lenten periods truly fruitful.

If one examines the fasts of the Church it is clear that they fall into two distinct categories:

1. MORE STRICT: Great Lent and the Dormition Lent

2. LESS STRICT: Nativity Lent and the Apostles' Lent

The most strict of the fasts is Great Lent of course, when not only is the culinary fast strict (fish is only allowed on the feasts of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, and sometimes Annunciation falls during Holy Week, in which case fish is not allowed; alcohol is only allowed on weekends and the rare day of a polyeleos rank feast), but even the Divine Services take on a very penitential character. The Dormition fast is a bit less strict (still pretty strict from a culinary point of view, but the services are not changed as they are during Great Lent). Then, in order of strictness comes the Nativity Lent (I put this one here only in that this fast gets rather strict towards the end) and the Apostles' Lent.

So the fast we begin today is the least strict of the four extended fasting periods. But this fast is hardly lax. We are called upon to abstain from meat and dairy products so that we may struggle in a more focused way against our sins. Many of the Holy Fathers point out that the stomach is the birth place of many of our other vices, and thus learning to control the stomach leads one to a much more fruitful spiritual life. Also, we must admit, we have very little opportunity for obedience in our days. But the mandated fast provides us the spiritual freedom that only comes from obedience. Yes – perhaps this fast is not so strict – but there are still opportunities here for spiritual growth and we should take them!

It is important to start early because this fast is short this year. If we put off starting we will already have ended! This fast varies in length from year to year. This is because the fast always begins on a day related to the Paschal Cycle (which moves from year to year) but ends on a day that is fixed: June 29/July 12. The fast begins on the day after All Saints Sunday and ends on the feast of Sts. Peter & Paul. This is true of all of the fasting periods by the way – they all prepare us for an important feast of the Holy Church. But ONLY the Apostles' fast varies in length from year to year. If Pascha is early then this fast is long (since the beginning of the fast will be early in June, or theoretically even late in May – but that would be very rare). If Pascha is late (as was the case this year) then this fast is short. And if Pascha is very late then this fast could even disappear if one used the New Calendar. In my opinion this is the best argument for using the Old Calendar. The calendar is not a dogmatic issue so this is not a question of salvation, but obviously the Holy Spirit guided the Church to have an Apostles' Fast. Using the New Calendar sometimes abolishes this fast (although rarely). I would argue we need MORE fasting and the fruitful spiritual struggle that comes with it in our days – not less.

This all being said, of course the fast is not just about food. If this is the only place we concentrate our efforts we are missing the point. Fasting has always been connected with alms giving in the life of the Church. We will provide an opportunity to give alms to those in need at St. Vladimir's each of the Sundays of this lenten period. Fasting is also connected with moderation. Not only are we called upon to refrain from certain foods during fasting periods, we are also called upon to struggle against gluttony in a more focused way that perhaps we are outside the fasting periods. And since we will be engaging in worldly entertainment less during this fasting period (as we do during all of the extended lenten periods) we have the opportunity to pray more often, attend Divine Services more often, and read edifying spiritual literature more often. Let us indeed utilize those opportunities! And as we do, let us ask the merciful Lord to help us to acquire the virtues during this fasting period. Not just acquire them for the time of the fasting period and then toss them aside, but acquire them so deeply in our hearts that we carry them with us out of the Apostles' Fast and into the rest of the year, and even the rest of our lives.

May the Lord bless and guide us during this short fast, that as a parish family we struggle together with each other, not against each other, and that we, with our sincere efforts and God's Grace to aid us, meet the feast of the Apostles Peter & Paul having been that much more transfigured – that much closer to God!

Congratulations to all with the beginning of the fast!

Fr. Gregory

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Day of Youth + Future Topics

I am thinking about writing about the following topics and I would like some feedback:

1. Preparation for Holy Communion

2. When to arrive and when to leave the temple for Divine Services and how to behave when in church

3. Summer vacation from church – words that do not go together

4. Proper attire in church and WHY that even matters

5. The parish patronal feast day

6. The Parish School

7. Theosis/Transformation/Transfiguration

Please share your thoughts here about these topics, as well as sharing thoughts you have about others. Capturing these here helps me not to forget about these ideas, as well as allowing you to react to these and add to the list!

This Sunday, the Sunday of All Saints, we celebrate the Day of Youth in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. This day was established some years ago to focus on our young people. This is good. And we should take this seriously. And furthermore, the diocese has established this day, the Sunday of All Saints, as a day on which we annually take up a collection in support of our Diocesan Youth Fund. This is the only income for this fund, which is utilized heavily to support and subsidize youth events in our diocese like the annual Walk of Life, St. Herman's Retreat, and Young Adult Retreat. And more. Please be generous when you come to the cross this Sunday, and if you can't be there, please reach out to Nathan or Marina to make your donation before or after the fact.

People often say that the youth are the future of the Church. Of course, on one hand, from the chronological point of view, this is obviously the case. But on the other hand, from a theological point of view, this is completely wrong! Christ is the future of the Church. No one will argue with that of course. But what do we mean by saying that Christ is the future of the Church?

Living a Christ-centered life is our goal. We are striving for theosis (spiritual transformation), which is the Orthodox understanding of salvation. I'd like to massage the above play on words a bit here and state very categorically that theosis is the future of our youth. What I mean by that is this: young people must live their faith actively. A theoretical or abstract conception of faith is not compelling for them (nor is it really for any of us, but it is much less compelling for them for various reasons from cognitive development to the reputation for hypocrisy that Christians have in the mass media/popular culture). The point of this post is not to whine about the media's portrayal of Christians. The Lord warned us about this Himself so this should not be a surprise:

“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Rather, the point of this post is to say that we sell our young people short if we do not challenge them. They are not looking for another shallow interaction. Their lives are chock full of that. They, like many who come to the faith as adults, are seeking authenticity. They are seeking a challenge. They understand that if salvation is so important that it is the main thing for which we strive and hope in our lives that it must be much more demanding than the veneer of a moral code that the world says that Christians preach to others but do not live for themselves.

But we betray our youth by watering down the faith for them. By “protecting” them from spiritual reality. By making Orthodox Christianity something that it is not. Orthodoxy is a spiritual struggle! But we do not challenge them to live Christ-centered lives. We do not challenge them to strive for theosis. We do not challenge them to live a morally upright life NOT because we say they must, but because if they are transformed they will be repulsed by immorality. Of course we have to teach them what is right and wrong, but I hate to break it to the parents out there: we aren't all that full of wisdom. And worse: the kids know that. And even worse: it isn't like most of us have been a stellar example for our kids (and they know that too, or they will eventually, so don't make your life into fantasy that will turn into a temptation for them later). The kids don't need every detail of our lives before we knew Christ, but they shouldn't think that mom and dad are saints either since sooner or later they will find out that, for most of us parents anyway, that isn't true.

Furthermore, our kids don't need more friends. They need parents. Parents who will hold them to a high spiritual standard. Parents who will exemplify a Christ-centered life. Parents who will share their spiritual struggles with them as appropriate, not to tempt them, but to make it clear to the kids that parents are not perfect (perish the thought!), and that it is not so much our moral superiority that draws God's Grace to us, but our humility and repentance. Do you remember when you first came to faith? How close God was? A lot of that time as new believers was spent in repentance and embracing humility. It is not a mistake that when we depart from repentance and humility that we have a lot harder time connecting with God.

And there is nowhere else to put this so I will include it here: it is not hypocrisy if we do not allow our kids to make moral mistakes that we made before we came to faith. In fact, it is shirking our duties as Christian parents if we do not hold our children to a lofty Christian standard. By God's Grace we survived our ignorance. Many do not. Why would we encourage our children to do something that we know is spiritually detrimental? This would be like if we survived some terrible disease but encouraged our children to also be so afflicted even if a cure is available. Maybe that isn't the best metaphor, but hopefully you understand what I am saying: don't encourage spiritually detrimental behavior in your children even if you engaged in such behavior. We are doing our best to raise saints here – even if we weren't saints ourselves.

So parents and other adults in our parish family (since it is not just the parents that guide our parish youth to salvation), let us not be confused that by their very nature the youth will be the future of the Church. If the future of our youth is theosis then yes – they will be the future of the Church in that they will live a transfigured life. But if their future is not theosis, is not a Christ-centered life, then they will not be the future of the Church. They will be outside the Church, for they will not understand why Christ was incarnate, and for that matter why God created man in the first place.

The motto “I'm #3!” is a real key here. What does that mean?

#1 is God
#2 is my neighbor (in the broadest possible Christian understanding of that term)
#3 is me

This motto is in complete opposition to the way that young people see the world. Again, for various reasons not excluding limitations in cognitive development, young people see the world in a hyper-selfish way. We hear “I'm #1” all the time. We give our children accolades for essentially doing little or nothing in sports, school, and life. Of course they think the world revolves around them! We tell them and show them that every day. But if they can understand that they are #3, well then we have already taken a rather large step in the right direction.

This is not me telling you how you must raise your kid. But if we want our youth to truly be the future of the Church, if we want them to fulfill their high calling as saints, then we need to make some adjustments on a macro scale. And this little note is about doing just that. I'm not telling you what time to put your kid to bed or what food to feed him or at what age he should start fasting. Those are things that parents know and understand about their kids and it would be frankly silly for me to comment on such things. Rather, this is about the big things. About making it possible for the statement “the youth are the future of the Church” to not be an empty, flippant, meaningless bunch of words, but rather an affirmative statement that this will NECESSARILY and UNQUESTIONABLY be the case. As parents and adults in our parish family this is our decision for the most part. It is never to late to start, but the Day of Youth in ROCOR is a rather good day I would suggest, so let's decide today that we are going to move in this direction in a very serious, conscientious way. I look forward to seeing you all at the huge parent and child “Stump the Priest” on Sunday!

Fr. Gregory

Monday, June 13, 2016

Is Immorality the Disease or a Symptom?

Although we like to mind our own business (mostly), it is important for us as Orthodox Christians to "call a spade a spade", so to speak. That is, to speak out against immorality. This does not mean we should be judgmental (remember our Lord's admonition that "let him who is without sin cast the first stone"). But we should be clear - there is good, and there is bad, and we need to teach our children what is good and what is bad. And we need to teach ourselves too. And being clear about good and bad helps us all. If you have questions about this - how to deal with moral questions (vexing or less so)  - please talk to me. I welcome your questions in this regard. I do not welcome you deciding who is good and bad in the parish and letting them know that. If you see a problem please share with me – do not act yourself unless there is a real and imminent danger to life and limb.

But the question I think we have to consider is deeper than calling good good and bad bad. That is: is immorality the illness or is it the cause of the illness? Is it the sickness itself or a symptom of the sickness? I think we must really seriously consider that immorality in all its various forms (that we often affirm as positive despite the fact that immorality can never be positive) is not the sickness at all - but the outcome of the sickness. What is the sickness then? I would propose it is this: society does not know Christ. They do not understand Who God is and what He wants from us. People do not value what God values because they do not know Him. And if that is the case - if immorality is a symptom rather than the disease - then the fault for immorality lies with someone we might not think about. It lies squarely with us!

If we had the cure for cancer we would scream it from the housetops, we would email everyone we knew. We might even buy a billboard. We would most certainly put it on Facebook. And we would be so thankful that we had the opportunity to save friends, loved ones, even perfect strangers from the terrible curse that is cancer!

But we have have the cure for something that is not a bodily disease. We have the cure for the most significant ill that has even befallen mankind. We have the cure for death. Not cancer. Not heart disease. Not any other terrible bodily disease. We have the cure for all of it - we have the cure for death. And we don't tell anyone about it. We don't scream it from the housetops. We don't put it on Facebook. We don't tell our friends, loved ones, and certainly not perfect strangers (that would just be weird, right?)!

The question is: why do we keep it a secret? Do we believe that the Lord came to earth to establish a set of secrets that only a select few can know and that only those select few can attain the heavenly kingdom? That everyone else is just out of luck? Of course that is completely ridiculous! We all know that the Lord came to save all men: Jews and Gentiles alike. And we know that everyone should know about Christ! That everyone should know He is the Savior! And we also seem to know that SOMEONE ELSE needs to tell all these people about Him that do not know Him.

But wait - is that possibly what the Lord's incarnation meant? That the vast majority of His followers should delegate the responsibility to tell others about Him to someone else? This can't possibly be right! But check yourself - when was the last time you told a friend about Christ? When was the last time you mentioned to a loved one that they would be welcome at St. Vladimir's? When was the last time you liked a post on our Facebook page so that your Facebook friends would see that you are a Christian and hopefully be influenced to consider this life for themselves as well? When was the last time, when someone started talking smack about Christianity, that you called them on that and set them straight?

Orthodoxy does not have the tradition of proselytizing "in your face". That means Christianity does not have that tradition. If people engage in this sort of enterprise they are outside the accepted tradition of the Church - full stop. But I think we can all agree that we also are not to keep the Good News of the Gospel a secret. To hide it away and pretend that during the week we are secular humanists and that we are Christians from 10:00 a.m. - 12: 00 p.m. Sundays cannot possibly why God became man.

So how do we square this circle? How do we find the happy medium where we are not engaging in non-Christian proselytizing but we are also not keeping the Good News a secret? Where we do not put this light under a bushel, to steal the beautiful King James expression of this concept? Let's discuss here! And let's pray! As with many seemingly irreconcilable issues having to do with faith we must have hope that the Lord will guide us to the middle path through prayer, even when we cannot see that middle path yet ourselves.

The Lord has given us the Pearl of Great Price - the True Faith. The greatest gift to mankind in the history of the world. Let's seriously consider how we will answer the Lord for this great gift He has given us. Because we will need to provide that answer - there is no doubt about that. Thus, we can help each other by working on real, tangible, practical ways that we can help others to share this great gift. For this is not a gift that is limited - there is enough for everyone, and moreover, the more people that share in this gift the more precious it becomes to each one that shares it. If we can do this - if we can cut off the disease that causes the symptom of immorality in our society - then we will not have to worry about trying to fight immorality - it simply will not exist. Not because we have devised a suitable police state to repress it, but because no one will be tempted to engage in it. If all know God then all will be repulsed by immorality. Until that is the state of affairs in human society we have lots of work to do. Let's begin today by living a Christian life ourselves. Our family life, our public life, and especially our life when no one else is watching. For then it is only God, our Guardian Angel, and us. No external force will make us behave. But if we love God we will in fact not want to disappoint Him - we will have no desire to misbehave while having a strong desire to do right in God's eyes. And if we can get to that point, if we can work seriously on our transfiguration as His children, then, as St. Seraphim of Sarov says, 1000 around us will be saved. Based on our membership this year that is 138,000 people that should be saved. That's a good start for this year! And the next year we should be at 138,000,000 (1000 times more than the previous year). And so on and so forth. If we live as Christians, if we do not hide Christ from others, then even a small group of people can bring Christ to many. Now we just have to get to work.

May God strengthen us! Let us begin today! And let us not blame immorality only on the immoral. Yes - we all have free will to do good and do bad. But if we have not allowed those around us to know Christ then how can they use their free will for what is right? That is - if they do not know what is moral how can they make the moral choice?

Let us get up off the couch, look in the mirror, and understand that we are looking at the person that can change things. Wringing our hands, complaining, and especially being less than ideal exemplars of a morally upright life will do nothing. But we can make a difference by deciding to follow Christ not just in deed, but also in word. Not just when others are looking, but always. When we finally get to that place - when we finally wake up spiritually - we will begin to transform. And then the multiplying by 1000 will begin in earnest!

Fr. Gregory

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Orlando – How do Orthodox Christians Respond?

Early this morning 50 people were killed in Orlando, Florida by what is being reported as an act of Islamic terrorism. I found out about this just a few hours ago for various reasons, mostly because this was a really busy day for me. But reviewing the social media postings surrounding this event I find it just plain disturbing that every interest group has already come out to grind its ax: pro-gun, anti-gun, Islam bashers, Islam apologists, anti-gay folks, pro-gay folks, and many more. We are so spiritually lost in our country that when 50 people are slaughtered in cold blood we do not even think to pray – we seek immediately to blame and to attack.

I like to think that we prayed on 9/11. Yes – we got to the point of blame quickly enough to be sure. But as a society first we prayed. I remember well the huge prayer vigil on the Diag at the University of Michigan that night. We didn't seem to pray today. Even though it was the day of our Lord's Resurrection. Sides were quickly draw up, and the spitting began right over the bodies still strewn about the floor of that night club in Orlando. And if we don't think that some of that spit landed on the dead we are wrong. It did. A lot of it in fact. In our haste to make a political point we almost instantly forgot about the victims and attacked each other. And we spit all over them as we spit at each other. As a society we didn't honor the dead on any level that I can discern – we just immediately got to using them to promote whatever it is that we thought was more important than they were. That is not the Orthodox Christian response.

But something posted here can't just be a critique of the politics of the fallen world. Honestly we could do that that every day here. Every hour in fact. The politics of our country effect us as Orthodox Christians to be sure, so I think at least touching on that part of our national discourse from time to time is not off limits. But as Orthodox Christians we have to be ABOVE politics. Not in a prideful or inappropriately aloof way, but we have to be above the basest level of the street. We are called to be in the world, but not become part of the world. That is, not to be consumed by the “values” of the world. So when someone is killed what is our Orthodox response? It must be prayer. We must pray for the dead. We must entreat the Lord to have mercy on them. It is a good work to pray for the dead, and it is our spiritual obligation.

Undoubtedly someone will object: but the victims were gay. At least some of them. They were in a gay night club. Certainly this the fire raining down on Sodom and Gomorrah and visiting God's wrath on those who live a life opposed to Him!

We've got to take a step back here friends. A step back from the basest levels of society. And stop using the corpses of the victims as weapons.

Fact A: the Church is not going to promote homosexuality.

Fact B: the Church is not going to promote murder.

We have to be consistent. If we are pro-life (and we are in case you were wondering) then we are pro-life all the time. Not just in the womb, but all throughout life. Homosexuality is not blessed by God. The scriptures are clear about this. No need to parse that here. Murder is not blessed by God. The scriptures are clear about this. No need to parse that  here.

So what do we do? As with any perplexing spiritual state of affairs: we pray. The spiritual situation of those killed in the night club is way above our pay grade to judge. Way above. We think we know – we want to apply judgement. But we don't know – we don't know the hearts of the victims. Only the Lord knows. And thus we need to pray for mercy for all – and leave it to the Lord to square the circle of the final resting place of each of the souls we are praying for. It is spiritually tragic that each and every one of those victims died there, including the deluded terrorist. Each of those victims is a son or a daughter of someone. Parents are weeping at their loss tonight. Most of those victims is a brother or a sister of someone. Siblings are weeping at their loss tonight. Each of those victims is created in the image of God. For this WE should weep tonight.

50 Americans were killed in a terrorist act on this day. This is the single greatest loss of life in a terrorist act in America since September 11. As Americans and Orthodox Christians it is our duty to pray for our country tonight. We have a lot of problems in America. I would probably argue (if I wanted to triple the size of this post) that most of those problems have spiritual roots. Tonight is not the night to have that discussion. Rather, tonight let us mourn our dead. And let us pray for our country. No matter our societal problems they aren't going to get better by us becoming MORE secular, that is, by being less Orthodox. But if we refuse to pray for those whose lives were tragically snuffed out, if we forget our duty as Orthodox Christians, the terrorists win. Let's decide now that we aren't going to let them win. That we are going to exhibit an Orthodox Christian response to this attack. And if we do that – we all win, for the Lord will be with us, perhaps at our darkest hour even more so than at any other time. We need Him now – for this indeed is a dark hour for our country. May He have mercy on us all.

Fr. Gregory

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Kronstadt - Home of a Saint

My last full day in Russia was spent in Kronstadt. Well, a lot of it was honestly spent trying to get to and from Kronstadt, but for those who have spent time in Russian cities you know that huge traffic jams are not unusual. We wandered into a real doozy today. :)

But we also got to spend several hours in Kronstadt, and that was very welcome! Not only do I have a personally strong veneration of St. John of Kronstadt, but he is also the patron saint of our Diocesan Pastoral School. Now, one might be tempted to think that my own veneration of St. John led to his being the patron of the Pastoral School. In fact, that temptation would be just that - a temptation, that like most temptations, is not true. In fact, as the conversation took place about who might be the school patron I suggested another Saint. It doesn't matter who. The bishop gets to make these decisions and he decided on St. John and I thank God for that.

We stopped first at the beautiful light blue church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The upstairs of the church seems not to be ready for worship yet. A few pictures of the exterior of the church and the interior of the downstairs church are below. The rare picture of the New Martyr Maria Romanov was from that church. Actually, there were several rare pictures of the Royal Martyrs there, but since my daughter Maria is named after this saint this one especially caught my eye.

From there we were on to the chapel of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God. This little chapel sits by the park that once held the St. Andrew Cathedral (where St. John of Kronstadt served for more than 40 years). We had a nice conversation about what the word "chapel" really means. In English this has a very wide meaning: from a huge place of worship (for instance, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican) to the size of a small room where there is no room to fit an altar table for the serving of the Divine Liturgy. That word in Russian does not seem to have quite the same breadth. Not perhaps the most exciting thing for our readers, but this was the conversation we had so I share it with you here!

Next we moved on to the monument where the St. Andrew Cathedral used to stand. This was destroyed by the Soviets, likely in an attempt to lessen the veneration of St. John of Kronstadt who of course had not been glorified yet in the Soviet Union (nor had he abroad - yet - when the cathedral was destroyed). We don't know for sure why they destroyed the cathedral, but we do know it was not in service to the Lord. Pictures of the chapel and the memorial are below.

We then walked to the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors after all). This is a huge church with a very naval motif. Note the anchors on the exterior of the main dome. The square in front of the cathedral is huge - perhaps 3 acres or so. The interior of the church is striking. The walls are ceiling are mosaic combined with iconography. If you think about it, making the whole thing mosaic, given its huge size, was probably not practical. There are three altars (not unusual in Russia at all), but the church has galleries - just like Hagia Sophia had. This is very interesting and unusual. Also, the chandeliers are the Greek style. Overall there are lots of pieces of Hagia Sophia in the building and that makes it that much more compelling. On the walls are lists of all the Russian sailors lost at sea in service to their homeland. This is quite powerful as well. Overall this church is unquestionably worth visiting. I liked a lot too that they had two boxes near the entrance clearly marked "scarves" and "skirts". That sort of took the personal interaction out of that potentially sensitive situation. Our church is approximately 100 times smaller than the St. Nicholas Cathedral, but if we could do something like this I think it would be good. It didn't feel imposing or "pushy", but it got the point across in a clear way. Something for us to think about...

The way to Kronstadt was slow. The way back was a parking lot. I am not joking when I say the pedestrians on the sidewalk were passing our bus at a regular rate. :) But the bus was in the left lane so we could not get out and walk! Eventually we made it back to Longan's and had the privilege to do some friend raising - meeting with some friends of Nathan and Mila's that were very interested in our project. We agreed to meet again next time I am in Russia. Then they called on the way home with some more questions! Excellent!

Tomorrow I fly home and with God's help will be back in Detroit before dinner. But before I close this series of reports from Russia I would like to thank everyone who helped to make this trip possible. I would especially like to thank Fr. Joseph Towne, who served for me while I was away - not just on Sunday, but for two busy weeks of our parish liturgical schedule. He will stay with us through the weekend so when you see him please thank him - he has helped our parish by allowing me to be here for the important friend raising we are doing that, God willing, will lead to fund raising as we get closer to the beginning of the construction of our new church, hall, and school. And just as I have asked everyone I have met here to pray for our success, I would like to close by asking our readers to do so as well. We need God's help to make this dream a reality. We need our own hard work too. Success only comes before work in the dictionary. I know there are folks that don't like that saying, my children perhaps first among them. But like it or not - it is true. So let us work and let us pray, and if it is God's will we will indeed execute this full project for His glory. May He grant it!

Please pray for my safe travels. I hope to see you all this weekend!

Fr. Gregory











Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Northern Capital

Today I arrived on the midnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg With Peter Longan. Such a contrast - a very western city. Especially after having spent two days in Davydovo which is, as all the people there call it, a village. This is not a village like the village of Dexter, MI. This is a village in the contemporary Russian sense - a very small gathering of a few houses and farms. In any case, we came overnight from Moscow since the only practical way to get from Davydovo to St. Petersburg was to take the train from Rostov to Moscow, and then take the overnight train to St. Petersburg. 

The first part of the day was spent seeing some of the historical sights of the city. I got my own personal guided tour by our own Peter, who for years has lived in St. Petersburg with Nathan and Ludmilla his parents, as well as Nicholas his brother. This was a view of the city that I think it is safe to say no tourist gets. We started with the Summer Garden, then the Peter and Paul Fortress, the famous statue of Peter the Great, the less famous (but from an engineering point of view much more amazing) statue of Nicholas I, Isakievsky Sobor, the Holy Synod, Kazan Cathedral, then off to the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra. In the Lavra neighborhood we were able to do a bit of shopping for the parish. But the main reason for visiting the Lavra was to meet Fr. Vladimir Xylan, who is the Pro-Rector of the Academy there (in other words, he does the same job there as I do for our diocesan seminary). The meeting was very fruitful and I'm so glad we took the time to meet!

After the meeting with Fr. Vladimir I had a chance to meet with Hieromonk Phillip, the head of our ROCOR mission in the Philippines. They are doing amazing work there and it was good to have this opportunity as well (although this was not part of the reason for making this visit it was a great unexpected outcome). Hieromonk Phillip asks all our prayers for their continued work. A few other visits with friends and graduates of the Pastoral School and then we were joined by our Parish Council member Mikhail Fisenkov. He was in St. Petersburg with his youngest daughter Susanna. We were given a tour of the seminary and academy grounds and buildings by Alexander Andreev, who is a graduate of our Pastoral School and a doctoral student here. It was so interesting to see the historical buildings of this island (which before the Revolution was taken up only by the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra, the Spiritual High School, the Seminary, and the Academy and their various buildings). During the Soviet period of course there were additional buildings built there (like a Psychiatric hospital) and most of the buildings belonging to the Church were taken and used for other things. However, slowly but surely the buildings are being given back. Recently the Academy building (different from the Seminary building) was given back. Much work needs to be done there, including a huge rebuilding of the church of the 12 Apostles within that building. The church has been closed by the government because it is not physically stable. This building was turned into a physical education college and the church became a gymnasium. It was essentially completely destroyed and cannot be safely used now. But I think it is important to note that so much work has been done in the last 20 years to get to this point. We must have hope that the Lord will bless the work of the next 20 years just as he has blessed the work of the last 20 years.

It was very interesting to walk in the buildings and on the campus where so many saints were taught, ordained, and formed into the pastors and arch-pastors they would become. Saints like St. John of Kronstadt (the patron saints of our Pastoral School), St. Tikhon the Patriarch Martyr, and many others (there is a very interesting icon that has been pained of all the saints of the seminary and academy - a picture of this is below with Hieromonk Phillip and I standing on each side of it). 

The day ended with dinner at the Grozovsky home with Fr. Gleb's mother and several of his brothers and sisters. Yulia Paramonova joined us too (she is a professor at St. Petersburg First Economic University) and it was wonderful to see her! Fr. Gleb's case in Israel seems to be coming to a head and we ask everyone to continue to pray for him and his family during this incredibly difficult time for them all! We will continue to remember them at every Divine Liturgy served at St. Vladimir's.

Please continue to pray for me as I travel!

Fr. Gregory





Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Davydovo Day 2: Davydovo

Today we had such an interesting day! It isn't finished yet as I write this (we still have to go to Rostov to catch the train to Moscow, then right away in Moscow catch the overnight train to St. Petersburg), but we are done with our excursion in the village.  I packed and got ready to go and want to write now - before I forget what we saw today.

The Director of the Davydovo parish school brought us to the two separate spaces that they are using for the school. There is a place for the kindergarten, as well as a separate place for the school that covers grades 1-4. Everything is very well kept, quite beautiful, and very humble. I would say that this is my impression of the whole village (at least every part of this village that I have seen that is connected with the parish: everything is done well, it is done humbly, and it is beautiful in its simplicity). The school exists to allow the kids to get a start in educational life in an environment that establishes modesty, respect for elders, and other similar important Christian virtues, as well as living around the Orthodox calendar of feasts and fasts. The work here is very impressive - they do everything by donations. No one in the village has money to speak of - certainly nothing left after taking care of their families, which are often of 3 children or more. But they all work hard for the Church and for God's glory and somehow it always works out. If you would like to help here please let me know. They need funds and also folks to come and provide labor. What a beautiful place this is to visit - you wouldn't be sorry you visited!

After visiting the school we had the privilege of visiting the local iconographer, who is Fr. Vladimir's son. His work is very impressive. He was trained first as an artist and then an iconographer. We will try to use him for our parish icon orders when we can. If you'd like to learn more about him and how to order from him please let me know. He and his wife (who is the Director of the School) kindly hosted us for lunch after our tour of his icon painting studio. The lunch was really marvelous! Incredible soup and a neat sort of egg thing. Everything fresh from the garden or the farm. Fresh Kvass, fresh eggs, even meat from their own animals. Fresh honey from the Urals (their family member lives there and keeps bees). Incredible - what a treat!

After lunch we were off to the parish church again, principally so I could get the pictures below for this article. :) We saw the picture of what the church looked like when they got it back after the fall of the Soviet Union. From what they received in 1999 when Fr. Vladimir first came to the village to what they have now - all the work they have done - can only be called a miracle. There is no other word for it. Especially because they really don't have any money to speak of as I mentioned above. But when something is needed they have always manage to have someone donate at the most opportune time - and then it is done. There is still a lot of work to do - perhaps they are half way there. Something that will be helpful is that in the summer church they have decided to more or less leave the frescoes as they are - in the mostly (but not completely) destroyed state they received them in. Structural repairs will be made there and a new iconostasis will be constructed - but the frescoes will remain as they are as a memorial to all those who suffered and died during the Communist era and as a reminder to future generations that they can never let such destruction happen again.

After the church we were off to view the new dormitory the parish has constructed and the camp grounds for the camp our parish has been supporting for those with special needs here. All is again very clean, well maintained, and humble. The parish recently purchased a huge plot of land across the creek to the west from the church. There they built a dormitory for those who would like to try out living in the village before they make a permanent commitment by selling an apartment in one of the cities to move to the village. In Fr. Vladimir's experience this sort of trial period is very important. It gives people time to let the romance wear off and to understand what the reality is here. It is not that this reality is bad - but this reality is not the reality of the city. For some people that is exactly what they are looking for. In other cases this is not at all what they expected. By allowing those - especially those families with special needs children - to have a trial period in the village the community has avoided difficulties and at the same time confirmed people in their decisions. The community is growing (albeit slowly).

The plan is to build another dormitory sort of building where those with special needs can live out their lives when their parent(s) have died. This is of course the biggest concern of any parent with a special needs child. That is, what will happen to the child after the parent(s) has left this life for the next? Davydovo aims to provide a Christian answer to that question, and I think we need to continue to help them in this regard. If you would like to help please talk to me - donations are welcome, but we need to think of a more comprehensive way in which we, living in the economically prosperous west, can help our brothers and sisters in Christ serve others in need in the economically depressed Russian countryside. Leaving the children to the state's care is not practical - for they will have no real life except to be chemically subdued and warehoused until they die. We owe our special needs folks a lot more than that (the Lord has given us an opportunity and a Christian obligation to help them after all), and Fr. Vladimir and his community are on the cutting edge here - ahead of even us "highly advanced" folks in the west. We can learn from this effort - but first we need to help make it successful. Pictures of the new dormitory and the camp are below.

All for now. Off to Rostov to catch the train. The next report will be from St. Petersburg if all goes well. Please pray for our safe travels!

Fr. Gregory