Thursday, March 25, 2021

Spiritual Reading During Great Lent

During Great Lent it is the practice of Orthodox Christians to less often engage with secular entertainment. In our days we can count the news media as entertainment, at least broadly, and although we do probably need to have an idea of what is happening in our state, country, and world, it seems like 15-30 minutes per day of consuming the news media is more than enough for us - even outside the fast. Certainly during the fast we wouldn’t want to regularly exceed that moderate limit as a rule. But if we turn off the television and YouTube, what do we do with ourselves?! Of course it is understood that we should be making a concerted effort to be more often at the Divine Services during Great Lent, but even if we attend every Great Lenten service we still have a lot of time left over!

That last little fact, that we spend SO MUCH time engaging in media and entertainment, is probably a good spiritual data point for us. That really is not in line with the life of Christians who came before us, and as Orthodox Christians it is important that we follow the time-tested path to the Heavenly Kingdom that our fathers have trod. So maybe this Great Lent is the beginning of something good for us all? That is, to spend less time locked into media. If we are going to do this, though, we have to find something to do with ourselves! Below are a few suggestions that we might all consider for the great fast – and beyond.

First – silence is a very good teacher. It is good for us to hear the birds outside our window at the time of year. Second – God’s creation is a good teacher. It is good for us to go for a walk, pray, and observe the beauty that the Lord has given us in which to work out our salvation. Third – hungry people are still hungry. Matthew 25 is an action-oriented challenge. Of course – we need to pray for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless. But we also need to take action. With all the extra time on our hands now that we have untangled ourselves from the nets of the media, let us consider doing the Lord’s work more often. Fourth – read more. Much more. Read the scripture. Read spiritual books. Read other things too, of course, but read things in support of Christian values. It makes no sense to turn off the trash on our screens only to open a trashy book. Especially during Great Lent: get started on a spiritual book. And then try to make it your habit to be working on one or two spiritual books all the time. Every day we should read the Gospel reading appointed for that day. We can find that on the calendar that the parish sends to our home annually, on our home page, in Sunday Reading (page 2 – every issue), and other places too. During Great Lent the Gospel is not appointed to be read during the Divine Services except on the weekends. It is good for us to the Old Testament readings of the day. This helps us to follow the cadence of the Church – and little things like this can help strengthen our faith.

I’m reading “The Sunflower” by St. John of Tobolsk now. Actually, he translated and Orthodoxized (this is a new word that I am copyrighting here and now) the book. Just like St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain did with “Unseen Warfare”. These books were authored outside the Church, but these Orthodox saints saw redeeming qualities in them and edited them to be theologically correct. “The Sunflower” has a subtitle: “Confirming the Will of Man to the Will of God”. It seems to me that this is a big part of our Great Lenten struggle. Probably because this is a big part of our human struggle: to conform our will to God’s will. But that is a hard struggle. Because we are proud. And if we are honest, we are very happy to do God’s will – as long as that conforms to our will. But our task is not to conform God’s will to ours – it is to conform our will to God’s. 

St. John of Tobolsk

We have little peace in our lives. And most of that lack of peace comes from the fact that we live upside down lives. If you went around walking on your hands all day with your feet in the air you would have little peace in your worldly life. We aren’t designed to have all the blood in our heads all the time. And we’d look a bit odd too. But we live spiritual lives upside down all day long every day: because we try to get God’s will to conform to our will. And that is why we have little spiritual peace. A book like “The Sunflower” helps to challenge us to stop living upside down. It helps point out where we could do better. It gives practical tips about how we can start, and how we can excel.

We have this book in our library – you can borrow it. You can buy this book in our kiosk. We buy it from Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. You can buy it there too if that is more convenient. In Russian the book is called “Илиотропион”. You can find that:

Here – Full Text

Here – Audio

It is free on Kindle and $3 on Apple Books. If you are reading this in Russia the cost is 250 rubles. It was recently republished by Sretensky Monastery Press.

Spiritual reading is key to our Great Lenten struggle. A book like “The Sunflower” can help a lot – and it seems geared especially to Great Lent. I recommend it highly. But if it doesn’t “hit the spot” do not fear. There are many other things that you can read to edify yourself spiritually. Please ask me or Fr. Joseph about this. We would both be happy to discuss spiritual reading with you and provide recommendations.

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Fr. Joseph Towne is Among Us

 We were very happy to have Fr. Moses and his family with us during their time here. And very happy that Archbishop Peter gave them an opportunity to move to Austin, Texas. For those who do not know, the parish there has purchased a new building since Fr. Moses arrived and they will soon be turning this building into a traditional Orthodox Temple. Thank God – it seems that this move was in accordance with God’s will!

And we are very happy to have Fr. Joseph Towne join us now that Fr. Moses and family have moved to Austin. Many of you know Fr. Joseph – after he was ordained a few years ago he spent significant time with us here in Ann Arbor. He then went on to serve in several parishes in our diocese. We needed help in our busy and growing parish after Fr. Moses left, and Fr. Joseph had the flexibility to move to us sinners again and take up a permanent position here. This is a great blessing to our parish! Fr. Joseph likes to serve the Divine Services, and we here are thankful to have frequent Divine Services since they are so helpful in our spiritual formation and the deepening of our parish spiritual life. This makes Fr. Joseph a very good fit for our parish! And Fr. Joseph’s arrival essentially gives us two full-time priests in our parish, which is also a great blessing!

Most of the time priests are either married or monks. But not always. And Fr. Joseph is neither married nor a monk. And this is allowed. If anyone has questions about this I urge you to ask them of me – but there is no need to interrogate Fr. Joseph in this regard. :) He is comfortable with his situation and Archbishop Peter has blessed him to serve in our parish and in our diocese. And thank God for that!

Please join me in welcoming Fr. Joseph to our parish family! It is my hope that he will serve us for many, many years. And I know that he will add great value to our parish family. I am personally very thankful that he has been able to come to us and I very much look forward to working with him for as many years as the Lord gives us in His Vineyard, the Holy Church. 

Fr. Joseph is named after the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed, and celebrates his name’s day on the Sunday following the Nativity of the Lord. Please add Fr. Joseph to your prayer list, as I hope you have added me. For we both need your prayers, as do our Deacons and our other clergymen, and we all appreciate your prayerful support!

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Our Faith, the News, and Pandemic Fatigue: Less Bitter Food and More Combs Filled with Honey

I’m tired of Corona virus. Of the quarantines. Of the infection control measures. Of the conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic and the vaccine. Of the selfishness of those that don’t care that the weak are dying and the medical personnel are pushed to the edge of sanity due to impossible work loads and can’t be bothered to inconvenience themselves in any way to help alleviate the medical crisis. Of those that look with disdain at someone who doesn’t wear a mask outside or alone in a car. Of the hyper-politicization of the entire thing. Of the divisions the devil has been able to sew in our society and the response of Orthodox people zealously joining his efforts in dividing humanity into enemies and allies (forgetting the key Christian teaching that there is only one enemy, and he is the one promoting all these divisions). Of those in power that are taking advantage of the crisis to attack those they inexplicably perceive as dangerous (read: those who have faith in New York, California, and other similar jurisdictions). Of those who have faith and act as if faith will magically save them when they violate infection control measures. And just everything about the pandemic generally. I’m tired of the news media on both the left and the right and its apoplectic reaction to those that don’t virtue signal incessantly (both the left and the right have their virtue signals – unless you can signal in both directions at the same time you are going to be castigated as evil and stupid by at least half the media). Of those who dismiss as ignorant extremists anyone who raises even the slightest concern about the long-term health effects of the vaccine. Of the elites that are so out of touch that they don’t understand that the economy is not a hypothetical construct (that is, that real people are really suffering real and serious economic harm because of the pandemic and the quarantines). I’m even tired of writing about it, and not many folks with an English minor ever write “I am tired of writing...” about anything. :) 

But my “I’m done with this – let’s just hold on until it ends and hope the divisions in society and the Church will not be permanent” attitude was pricked a little when I picked up “Unseen Warfare” last night for the first time in years. In fact, once I had the book in my hands I realized that I had never finished it. I probably stopped on Chapter 6 or 7. This is a very important book on the spiritual life for us as Orthodox Christians, although most people don’t know that this book was originally written by a Roman Catholic writer (Lorenzo Scupoli). It was then Orthodoxized, for lack of a better term, by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and then revised again by St. Theophan the Recluse before it was published in Russian. The English version we have is a translation of St. Theophan’s Russian version. Then I got to Chapter 9. And despite my attitude of wanting nothing more to do with the pandemic, having read this chapter, I felt I had to share it, or at least the gist of it, here. Because I think and I hope it will be beneficial for our readers. And maybe help us to step back from our self-constructed barricades and begin to see the “enemies” we have created as those made in God’s image and struggling to attain to His likeness: just like us. We are all scared, cranky, and tired of it all. We have forgotten that we are to strive for moderation and shun extremes. I guess at least I hope reading this chapter will help us to stop making our collective response to the disease worse than the disease itself. Because the disease will eventually go. Whether the fruit of our collaborative efforts with the Evil One towards division will disappear quite as quickly is less clear. But perhaps we can begin to work on that problem now, by being attentive to this spiritual classic.

The title of the chapter is “On protecting the mind from too much useless knowledge and idle curiosity”. What a great title! And the chapter does not disappoint – that is exactly what it covers. It seems to me that this chapter was basically written for our spiritual situation today. Spoiler alert: very few of us reading this blog post will in turn read this chapter and will NOT have our conscience wounded when we see ourselves and our  gluttonous consumption of useless information called out there. One might even argue that social media = useless information. But I leave that equation to you. I only suggest you consider it as a possibility.

You can find the chapter in full here. St. Basil the Great is quoted prominently in this chapter: “Let listening to worldly news be bitter food for you, and let the words of saintly men be as combs filled with honey.” That is beautiful. And something that I wish I read, memorized, and put into action daily starting in March. And it is condemning. At least of me. How perniciously and incessantly our society entices us with the siren’s call of useless knowledge. Or at least it does me. I can’t judge you because only you know you. Well God does too, and probably better than you know yourself, and I guess that is not something we should ignore. So I would like to humbly suggest that this is where we should spend some serious time in the coming weeks:

1. Reading Chapter 9 – likely a couple of times (it is not long, but it is dense)

2. Praying to God to help us to find a more moderate level of consumption of useless information

I don’t say NO consumption of useless information. We probably can’t live completely with no knowledge of the world, what is happening in the world, etc. But we can almost certainly spend significantly less time consuming that information (especially via social medial platforms, which seem to drive us deeper into our own custom-designed rabbit holes with each subsequent article in our feed), and use that time for things that are much more spiritually profitable. Like prayer. And spiritual reading. And participating in the Divine Services. And engaging with our Parish Family. And spending quality time with our own family, if the Lord has so blessed us.

I’m not sure what else should be written here. Probably little or nothing. Less bitter food and more combs filled with honey! May the Lord grant that to us all as we continue our pandemic struggle.

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Election Day is Tomorrow - Let us Choose as Christians

The last two weeks Archbishop Peter has asked us to conduct a special moleben at the end of the Sunday Divine Liturgy asking the Lord’s help for our country as we approach election day. Sadly there is much dissension in our country now. It seems to me (and perhaps I am just being romantic, but I don't think so) that Election Day used to be a day when we would celebrate our democracy – our ability to choose our own leaders freely. It seems that this is no longer the case – at least not this year. We still have the ability to choose freely, but the overall tenor of the society is rather negative - not celebratory. 

So our response is to pray – and that is the right response for us as Orthodox Christians. To pray for our nation. And to pray for our vote, for if and when we vote we must vote first as Christians. We have the right to vote – to exercise the free will that the Lord has given us. And just like all instances in which we have the ability to exercise free will we strive to do this as Christians – understanding that we will answer for our choices. That sounds sort of ominous. It is not meant to be scary, but it is also the spiritual reality: the way we live our lives in this life determines our place in the next. So let us all pray and ask the Lord to help us to choose well, to choose in alignment with our faith to the greatest extent possible, and then let us choose. And then – let us again immediately take up the responsibility of praying for our country and our leaders. No matter who those leaders end up being based on our societal choice. St. Paul commands us to pray for our leaders, and he issued that call when the civil authorities were seeking to exterminate Christianity:

"I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth." (I Timothy 2:1-4)

Obviously we are not in such a situation as the early Christians were, so we all the more have the responsibility to pray. May the Lord bless us all and guide our leaders so that we can firmly establish peace in our society, for that peace makes it much easier for us to work out our salvation - and to help others find their salvation in Christ - than in any other non-peaceful context. This is the point of our prayers. That our leaders would make good choices that lead to peace. May the Lord grant us the zeal for this prayer, and may He grant our leaders to hear His call and facilitate peace in our land and our world!

Fr. Gregory

Monday, October 26, 2020

Pronoun Trouble

Those of us who grew up in the US have fond childhood memories of Bugs Bunny. One of the most famous Bugs Bunny cartoons has to do with pronouns. Here is the “instructional video” with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd (complete with some cartoon violence):

Sometimes we struggle with pronoun trouble at St. Vladimir’s too. Usually this has to do with a conflict between “they” and “we”. “They” will work at the work day. “They” will cut the grass. “They” will work at the festival. “They” will set up the outside Liturgy. “They” will pay for the barn floor. Etcetera. At St. Vladimir’s we are a family. Families don’t use “they” in this way. The correct pronoun is “we”. “We” will work at the work day. “We” will cut the grass. “We” will work at the festival. Etcetera.

Sometimes we need some help to align our pronouns to the appropriate spiritual reality. That help consists of our effort and God’s blessing. We need to try our best to make this paradigm change, but we need to ask God to help us if we hope to succeed. Generally we’ve been pretty good at this as a parish family, but we fully understand that many of our parishioners have been really effected by the pandemic. Folks are mentally fatigued. They need a break. They need to get away from the pandemic and political stress that the society is absolutely filled with right now. WE UNDERSTAND. But we think that implementing the “spiritual we” in our lives gives us that break we need. We don’t have to only focus on ourselves, on our problems. It isn’t that those problems are not important or valid. But by focusing on the “we” of our parish family we serve others. We serve God. We realign ourselves with the important Gospel precept:

God is #1.
My neighbor is #2.
I am #3.

This is not a message we hear in our society, in our media, or anywhere else except in God’s House. But this is the truth – the truth our Lord taught us for our salvation. And working within that truth allows us to have a break from the pandemic stress. And as with other spiritual struggles your parish family is here to help. We are all patients in the Spiritual Hospital that is the Holy Church. Improve your treatment by implementing the spiritual we! Ask Fr. Gregory if you need help, if you are struggling, or with any spiritual issues. He is here to help, but needs you to tell him you need help since he cannot, as far as you know, read your mind. :)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Easing Out of the Quarantine

The Parish Council met on May 6, 2020. At that meeting we discussed the quarantine thus far, and how we might be able to start to gather again at St. Vladimir’s as the State of Michigan begins to slowly lift the quarantine.

1. Thank you to everyone who has been so supportive and understanding of our parish’s strict approach to the pandemic: we have done everything we can to not be a place of death, even as death pervades the society around us. That is, we will take every reasonable precaution to keep our parishioners safe during the outbreak and for the parish church to be a source of life-giving, not of life-taking. Many parishes have struggled in this regard. We have done very well at following the guidance from the diocese and the goverment. And we are very thankful to all for doing their part to keep the disease at bay by not gathering in person – even during the holiest days of the year.

2. It is very important that if you are struggling spiritually, psychologically, materially, or in any other way, that you reach out to me or Fr. Moses. Although we are being asked to visit parishioners only in an emergency, the definition of “emergency” has been largely left up to the clergy. So if you need us – rest assured that we will be there. You can find our contact information here:


3. We are actively working on plans to welcome parishioners back to St. Vladimir’s as the Michigan quarantine is lifted. We will be following CDC guidelines throughout the entire time of the pandemic, so when we first come back it will not be the same as it was before the onset of the virus. And we will probably not fully return to that “normal” baseline until there is wide-spread immunity in the population.

  • There will likely be limits on how many people can attend any one service (we will provide sign up sheets and serve as many liturgies as possible on the weekends to allow everyone to participate in the Divine Services in person to the greatest extent possible)
  • Parish Council member families and clergy families will do our best to attend Divine Services during the week so that the weekends will be maximally available to the rest of the parish family to participate
  • There will be physical distancing requirements
  • Masks/face coverings will certainly be required in the beginning (except for those less than 2 years old and those who cannot mask for specific medical reasons)
  • It is imperative that St. Vladimirians acquire a cloth mask or other face covering that covers the mouth and nose to wear at church. If you have any trouble in this regard please contact me. We have a limited number of masks to give away for those who cannot afford one or who cannot otherwise acquire one
  • There will be a contest for the best cloth mask/face covering on the first weekend the parish opens (details to come)
Over time we hope that our continued efforts will make it possible for more people to gather at one time and for this pandemic to come to an end as quickly as possible. We are also looking into whether we might be able to hold one of the Sunday Liturgies (probably the late one) outside – if that allows us to gather more people in a safe manner.

4. Bottom line: we want to bring our parish family back together in corporate worship – but we are only going to do this in ways that are safe and that follow experts’ guidance. We are not experts in Epidemiology or Infectious Disease, so we are going to follow the advice of state and federal experts in these fields, striving to keep our parish death rate as low as possible while providing the most robust parish life we can to our parishioners. As of today Michigan is presently at step 3 of 6 of the 6-step reopening plan. Step 4 allows for the beginning of small gatherings. It is likely that we will have our first public worship when we reach step 4. God willing that will be in the next few weeks.

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Let us Beware of Covidolatry – Observations from the Michigan Deanery

As Dean of the Michigan Deanery of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia I no doubt will have to answer – at least on some level – for the parishioners of our Deanery. Not in the way that Archbishop Peter would as our ruling hierarch (he answers for every soul in the diocese), or the way in which I will unquestionably answer for the parishioners of the parish where I am the Rector in Ann Arbor. But to imagine there is NO repercussion for my work as the Dean is probably a fantasy, so I think it is important, and hopefully an aid to my salvation, to make a few observations about the state of our state from a spiritual point of view, and to raise some questions that hopefully will cause some soul-profiting soul searching for the faithful in our deanery.