On the Shoulders of Giants


One of the peculiar things (though not really) about the Orthodox Church in America (and by this I mean all the jurisdictions) is the fact that in a little over 200 years on this continent, we have been blessed by the showing forth of many saints. And not only have saints been shown forth, but many of those saints have been among our hierarchs. Men such as St. Innocent of Alaska and Metropolitan of Moscow, St. John of Shangai and San Francisco, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, St. Tikhon, Confessor of the faith, Bishop of America and later Patriarch of Moscow. St. Nicholai of Zicha who served for a while as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s Seminary – who had also been imprisoned by the Nazis in one of their death camps. These are amazing figures, aided by saints both among the laity and the clergy. Nor are we without martyrs: St. Peter the Aleut, St. Juvenaly, St. John Kochurov (who labored in Chicago and was the first priest martyred by the Bolsheviks) St. Alexander Hotivitzky (who was marytred as he sought to protect the Cathedral of the Savior in Moscow). In less than two hundred years this Church, like its mother church, has yielded a great abundance of holy saints. There are many others whom I have not mentioned here as well as many more who are even now being considered for canonization.

To me, this peculiar history which is marked by radically brilliant manifestations of holiness in the lives of saints, is utterly essential when we think about our work here in this land. We were not rich to a large extent in coming to America. Certainly the generations of miners and steel workers who built so much of the Church, including such institutions as St. Tikhon’s, were far from rich. They gave their life’s blood for this Church.

By the same token, we will not flourish in our own days by any other means than did the saints. We are frequently clumsy (to say the least) when it comes to administration (come visit my parish). We are scandalous in our relationships with other Orthodox (the alphabet soup that greets those who first look at Orthodoxy in America is outrageous). And yet solving these problems – something that I will gladly work towards all of my life – is still not of crucial importance. We’ll get by.

But we will never survive without holiness. Without absurd and audacious forays into forgiveness we will never fulfill the mission God has given us in this land. Without leaps of faith that would make the heart faint, we will never begin to be what God has called us to.

However, my hope rides exceedingly high. My hope is founded always on God, and on this particular heritage we have as Orthodox in North America. A farmer does not take his best seed and sow it because he has no hope of a rich harvest. We were planted by saints and that not by accident. The providence of God has given us a rich heritage, it seems to me, for one of two purposes (if not both). Either in His foreknowledge He knew that only a Church planted by saints could do anything in this land and in this culture. This hypothesis I call the “survival hypothesis.” Without saints Orthodoxy would never have survived in this land. The other (which I favor) is that God in His foreknowledge planted the Church in this land by saints that it might flourish as a Church of saints. This I think of as the “hidden hypothesis.” For if this is so, we are still waiting for its fulfillment.

But I am deeply hopeful. I have no idea what I will see in the years that remain to me. But I know that my children are better Orthodox Christians than I am and that they are not alone. I am very encouraged by what I see coming from our seminaries. I say this as someone who knows what is coming out of other seminaries in America.

I served for a number of years as a reader for the General Ordination Exams, taken by seniors in Episcopal Seminaries. Over the course of my terms (through most of the 90’s), the tests became easier and the answers less satisfactory. There has been a “dumbing down” of seminaries in many denominations. Such seed will eventually bear fruit and show itself for what it is (some would argue that this process had begun long before).

I met today with a young couple from my deanery who will enter seminary this fall. My heart soars – not because this young man is the greatest scholar they will ever see – but because I know that this man will make a fine priest. He will not waste what has been given him.

We are all standing on the shoulders of giants in our American Orthodoxy. Perhaps its why so many that I talk to can see so far and ache for a greater fullness in our Church life here. I make no claims as a prophet, but I believe we shall not be disappointed.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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8 responses to “On the Shoulders of Giants”

  1. Jack Avatar


    Is there a book written on the Saints of North America? Why aren’t most priests, at least the less intellectual ones, simply trained by apprenticeship?

  2. Steve J. Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I really do hope you’re right about not being disappointed. I feel that all I do is “ache for a greater fullness of the Church here”. I will admit that I do not pray near enough for that to be fulfilled. From what I have experienced there is a lot to be learned about how to help establish, support, and grow missions in smaller towns. Maybe it just comes down to a lack of resources. If Orthodoxy is only viable in or near large cities what good is it to the rest of America? At times I am full of hope about the prospects of Orthodoxy in our location and in all America, but there are many times of discouragement. I guess it’s a lack of faith on my part.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, the saints that you mention also had a deep and abiding love for the people of this land. Orthodoxy will not flourish until we re-gain that same level of love. That attitude is still prevalent that we Americans are just not worthy of Orthodoxy, only the (fill in the blank) are really Orthodox. It is not the Church’s job to maintain anyone’s ethnic heritage. As long as there is one Orthodox parish that has that as a priority we are not seeing the point. We are not a confederation of national churches, we are the Body of Christ which has members in each nation. In the United States we have the wonderful opportunity of melding the flavor of each of these into a really wonderful brew.

    One advantage that non-liturgical Protestants have is that anyone can start a church. That is also a disadvantage in terms of right teaching. The Church in Alaska was not begun my saintly missionaries however, but simply by the faith of the trappers and fishermen from Russia. We lay people are going to have to learn how to evangelize by living our story and telling our story. Forming communities that makes it worthwhile for a priest to come, sacrificing as did our forebearers to build something not expecting that it be handed to us on a platter. Where is our treasure?

  4. Clint Avatar

    My experience agrees with yours regarding the dumbing down of seminaries. My father and I both attended the same protestant seminary. He was there 24 years before me. His requirements dwarfed my own. They were required to choose to memorize either Ephesians or Colossians for one particular class. We were required to memorize about 5 verses. I have his notes and assignments (since he passed away several years ago) and have thumbed through them on occasion. His tests were harder, more indepth and vastly more comprehensive. My education there was simply a skeletal wraith of his.

    Having said that…it was a protestant seminary and while I know that I was blessed by my experience there and it set in motion the things that led me to discover Orthodoxy, it is itself pointed in the wrong direction.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    In a general answer – don’t succumb to the American “vision” thing. We waste time worrying about where we’re not and how we’re going to get there. Do what is set before you each day and pray for God’s will among us. As Christ said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” We can’t make things happen, but we can be the thing that is happening if we’ll bother to live the Orthodox life. God will put it all together. Man cannot do this. As for me, I’m sweating in South Carolina with about 15 kids, a seminarian, some of volunteers, and three nuns. In a few minutes I lead Vespers. In such things the Kingdom of God comes.

  6. Steven CC Avatar
    Steven CC

    Father, I think your last post (and prior comment) on a monastery in the South is very helpful in considering this post.

    Orthodoxy will only get stronger in this country as more monasteries join our already established temples/churches. The Church misses something if it only has one and not the other. (I wonder if the Theotokos is a type of the Church in this sense, as she was both a Mother and Virgin, representing both the parish and the monastery at once.)

  7. Maiden Avatar

    Father Stephen–

    This is off-topic, and forgive me. But I’d love a post from you about the Orthodox position on torture and “enhanced interrogation.”

    I very much enjoy your blog!

  8. Fatherstephen Avatar


    There are books on the lives of the saints of North America. Go to St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and click on their bookstore. They have several such. Priests are trained in many ways depending on their situation, etc. The normative path is 4 years of college and 3 years of seminary. The things you learn after seminary are much harder to learn and can only come with time and the grace of God. We have programs in the OCA, such as the summer seminary intern (I have one this summer) that seeks to help this process.

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