A Russian Tale


This is not a tale from old Russia, or even so much a new tale, but it is a tale told by me, an American, born in 1953, who lived through the events of the 60’s, Vietnam, the whole mess. And strangely, Russia played an important role.

At the end of the 60’s my older brother was in the Navy (long story that) and by the early 70’s was on a destroyer heading to Hanoi harbor. I had been through several religious epiphanies and was deeply subject to the incipient cynicism that was growing throughout young America. A war that was increasingly unpopular, a Presidency that had fallen into disgrace, and an atmosphere that simply left authority in shambles was the legacy I was living into in those years.

I lived in a commune (Christian) for 2 years between high-school and college (grist for another post on another day) and so entered college in the fall of ’73. I carried more questions and few answers and more attitude than someone that young is entitled to have.

My cynicism was shaken up in those mid 70’s by the actions and words of Alexander Solzhnitsyn. Here was a man of integrity (unquestioned at the time and I think still intact) who was standing up to overwhelming odds and surviving to tell the tale. He was someone who captured the imagination.

When I began to read his works, and discovered in reading his essays, that he was, in fact, a practicing Orthodox Christian, something within me soared – not because I knew anything about Orthodoxy, but that such a hero had Christian reasons for the hope that drove his heroism. It saved me from despair.

It also created within me an interest to know more. I began to read Russian novels such as those by Dostoevsky and discovered that Solzhenitsyn was not an aberration but an example. Again my hope soared.

I had opportunities occasionally to meet people who knew the man personally (one particular time I remember was while I was in seminary). But in all of this a seed was planted that created a friendship and a kinship that remained unfulfilled.

At a retreat in an Anglican monastery I was given a book on the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov to read. I did not go to sleep that night until it was finished. At the book’s completion I had a friend in heaven I had not known before and a devotion to one of Russia’s greatest saints. It’s odd how many Americans have been touched by the life of this early 19th century Russian staretz.

Time has gone on, and though I think I am a very American priest (we do all English at St. Anne), I remain a man who is deeply indebted to a culture that is not my own, which gave me heroes when my own culture was failing me.

I believe in the long run the culture that was saving me was nothing other than the culture of the Kingdom of God which cannot be identified with Russia, Byzantium or any of this world’s kingdoms but is nevertheless present wherever God pleases. But if you have encountered it in any form, you cannot help but have a love for the place that harbored it. In time such places as Africa, Greece, the Mideast, Ninevah, Romania, and many others have come to have places in my heart. It is as though the whole globe is (within my heart) being transformed into a bearer of the Kingdom.

And so it should be. It remains to me and for those of us who live here, to make of Appalachia a place that so bears the Kingdom that it, too, may rescue others from whatever place they have wandered and bring them home to the only place any of us can ever call home: the Kingdom of God.

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.


59 responses to “A Russian Tale”

  1. Andrea Elizabeth Avatar

    Father, have you seen the 1934 Katherine Hepburn movie, Spitfire, about an Appalachian faith healer? It’s probably not very true to Appalachian history, but I wonder if some Tradition might already be there waiting to be unearthed in its proper context.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    What I find in Appalachia is a very deep faith, and frequently even a “one-storey faith”. We have converts here in our parish that come from every kind of background, including some that are quite rural and not at all urban in their experience. They make good Orthodox. Of course, my mother, chrismated at nearly 80 years of age, at her first Pascha, to the greeting, “Christ is risen!” replied, “And I shore am glad!” Indeed.

  3. Chip. Avatar

    Your post tells of your affection for certain places where the Kingdom of God came to you. Your thoughts are echoed by a didactic poems from C.S. Lewis. He writes a long list of events and places in his life that had moved him the most. His piece concludes,

    “The shape of horse and woman,
    Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.”

    Jarusalem, indeed.

  4. nancy Avatar

    Solzhnitsyn’s writings had such a huge impact on the world that it’s impossible to measure their influence. I know of many stories similar to yours and I also know of those who eventually became Orthodox after their encounter with his work. What is incomprehensible to me is how one could read Gulag memoirs or have even a cursory aquaintance with the atrocities in the Soviet Union and still continue to ignore or minimize the horrors inflicted upon the people in that beleagured country. I’m currently reading Paul Hollander’s THE END OF COMMITMENT, and although there were those “true believers” who gave up the preposterous dream, others (I will not name them) continue to cling to these beliefs. But I do believe that personal encounters (even found in brief visits to Russia) reveal the depth of the Orthodox Faith and a revival of belief in this troubled country. Inhspiring for us in this new world.

  5. Christopher Avatar

    Interesting post! Having been orthodox for a little over ten years now, I read it with a bit of sadness. My wife and I have had several “ethnic encounters” for lack of a better term. In fact, of the 4 parishes we have been part of in the last 10 years, I can honestly say only one has not been ethnically oriented, to the point that it has been difficult (particularly on my wife – she having a more organic connection to the people than I, who tend to intellectualize). We understand the roots of Orthodoxy and how it has arrived in America, but we look for an American Orthodoxy (not a “Pan-Orthodoxy”, let alone a greek/russian/fill_in_the_blank Orthodoxy). I cherish St. Theophan, but I can’t say I even like many of his countrymen we encounter here.

    What made me think of all this was this:

    “Time has gone on, and though I think I am a very American priest (we do all English at St. Anne), I remain a man who is deeply indebted to a culture that is not my own, which gave me heroes when my own culture was failing me.”

    Revealing is it not, how “all English” is a qualifier for “very American”. I am becoming more and more convinced Orthodoxy in America is going to remain in “ghetto” status for a while longer. Being younger, never having to grapple with the heady 60’s and 70’s, I can’t say that Russia or Greece or Lebanon has given me a hero. C.S.Lewis (Saint Clive) comes the closest for my wife and I.

    I agree however, culture at best can be a slight help, and hopefully not get in the way, of the Gospel and the Kingdom. After some experience however, I can’t say the Orthodox (in America at least) are any better than most at this – in fact we are worse…

  6. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Seraphim of Sarov continues to be a deep well from which to draw refreshment. It is the Living Water because, were it other, the flow would have dried up when he went to rest in Christ. I thank God for the many Russians who put of Christ, and so often at great personal cost.

  7. stephen Avatar

    One of the problems that we “converts” have here in the US with the ethnic churches is our inability to deal with mindsets that are not in “union” with our own. We expect them to act, to think, to be like us. We fail to accept the differences, to understand the root of why they are ” so ethnic” and do not take the time to realize that their faith is based on a different plane, that they have not had the same upbringing as we have, they see life differently. Things are improving for us “converts” tho, I am sure that you have seen the explosion of english orthodox writings that has come about in the last 10 years. The US church (for the most part) was not founded on missions but on ethnic and cultural survival. In the next 50 years, American Orthodoxy will become less ethnic and more “americanised”, I pray that we can take this “pearl of great price” that is given to us and not water it down or lose it’s content. All the saints should be heros to us, no matter what their ethnicity. For their struggles are no different than ours.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What is American Orthodoxy? My home parish was founded by immigrants from Syria, many from one of the oldest Christian dioceses in the world, Ramalla, fleeing the violent persecution of the Turks. During much of the time in Wichita, they were called the “Westside Indians” and spat on as they were walking down the street becaue their skin was dark. Some of our older parishoners still remember this indignity. Yet now, it is a cathedral parish full of converts such as myself (we have at least one ex-everything I think). It is a monetarily and spiritually rich parish. Our three priests: a convert who was raised Roman Catholic, his assistant, of Lebanese background who speaks fluent Arabic and has been Orthodox all his life. Then there is the retired Greek priest who helps serve the Divine Liturgy on Sunday. We get a little Arabic and a little Greek, some Romanian from time to time in our services especially on Pascha. We have Russians, Syrians, Ethiopians, “Americans”, Romanians, Greeks, rich and poor, smart and dumb, arrogant and humble, scientists, scholars, docotrs, lawyers, businessowners, laborers and the unemployed. People I have difficulty tolerating and those who feel the same about me and a few invisible saints I am sure. This last weekend we had our 74th annual Big Dinner, the name that is gradually taking precedence over the previous name, Lebanese Dinner, even though the fare is still Kibba, Hushawa, Baklava and cabbage rolls. We served our usual 5000 meals and well over 400 took our Cathedral Tours. Seventy-four years ago, we were a house church with a visiting priest who did not even come once a month.

    Our icons are written by a monk who thinks ROCOR is too liberal. We have a western-rite misson parish who worships in our chapel, full of Byzantine icons and an absolutely beautiful iconostasis that dominates the space (western-rite parishes typically do not have an iconostasis). We are part of the community in a quiet, yet strong way and growing stronger.

    It has not been easy for us. Until the last 15 years we could easily fit the mold of an “ethnic” parish with a few token non-Arabs who married in. We had one really horrendous priest who apparently did his best to destroy the parish, and another who, by humbling announcing his alcholism during announcements after a Sunday Liturgy and asking for the help of the parish, brought the parish together. We also have his Grace Bishop Basil watching over us and guiding us with his wisdom and love.

    Sounds pretty American to me. There is no reason why each parish whose members participate here cannot do even better by faithfully and sacrificially making use of the gifts and opportunities you have. That’s American too, isn’t it?

  9. Richard Collins Avatar


    I’ve been thinking about this issue as well. It seems to me that, although the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t constrained to any particular human culture, Gods incarnational way of working is to ‘articulate’ his Kingdom in and through earthly cultures. One, then, can not easily ‘peel away’ THE Kingdom from amongst the smaller kingdoms without causing a rupture of incarnation.

    Russian culture (as with other ‘Orthodox’ cultures) have spent many years ‘maturing’ in the patristic mindset – like a wine taking it’s flavour and ‘tone’ from the barrel in which it sits. Somehow we need to receive this cultural ‘gift’, planting it in the seed of our own context, and then allowing the Holy Spirit to hybridise the old tree within the new soil.

    Obviously ‘ethnicism’ needs to be confronted where it rears it’s ugly head, but sometimes I wonder whether ‘Western’ converts to Orthodoxy think we can all too easily mould Orthodoxy into our pre-existing ‘mindsets’?

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    I do not know what your experience has been. C.S. Lewis was and is certainly a great hero of mine. I have no doubt that he would have left the present Anglican Church long ago, based on his stated positions. He wrote very affectionately about the Orthodox and is held in high regard by them.

    I would describe my parish as very American not just because of its English, but because it is in fact about 90% converts. We treasure and treat with great kindness those among us from foreign lands, that include, Japanese, Chinese, Philipinno, Russian, Greek, Macedonian, Romanian, etc. We’re probably more Americanized than I know or recognize, because it’s the culture I swim in.

    These things vary a lot from parish to parish at the moment. Some parishes having much larger “ethnic” contingents, others smaller. At this point in my life, I would accept Orthodoxy however it came, because I believe it to be the truth. It’s present ethnic structure has more to do with the historical realities of our time which are changing quickly.

    To choose Church based on what we like rather than what we believe to be the truth is a dead end street. The one you may like, if it is not the truth, will quickly morph into something else – that is the American pattern.

    But whatever you do, you have to take up the cross. Following Christ never takes us around the Cross but through it and with it. May God give you grace.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    A note to Mary,

    Sorry, I lost your posts in the spam filter. Was trying to clear it this morning before my coffee. Mistake!

  12. Mary Lowell Avatar

    Dear Brother Christopher,

    Not sure what you are getting at or if I misread your remarks, but my experience with “ethnic” Orthodoxy cuts both ways. There is the “ceremonially” clan that seems, in attendance and practice, to only need the Church for the proverbial “baptize, marry, and bury” officiating. And then there are those whose organic piety has been my starez, teaching me things I only understand “ceremonially”, even after 25 years in the Church. This is something no New World Orthodox could provide as proxy.

    Only a few years in the Church, I took part in a long vigil with Russian émigrés, after which the nave was darkened to one candle at the altar, one candle at a side altar and one at the cleros, where the psaltery was dispassionately and eloquently read by a young seminarian. No one left the nave, and the narthex was filled with silent worshippers. I tried to find out if Confession was available at this time. I needed it! But no one to the left or right of me in the darkness would acknowledge my whispered questions. It was not an issue of language; I had shared a meal with these statues hours earlier, passing the potatoes with lively conversation. But in the darkness of the nave, I was sure that I must be invisible to them or like a neon sign, shouting, “What do I do now?”

    Then I got it ⎯ the long line of vigilance stretching over the centuries and continents from the Holy Sepulcher, waiting …

    It is important for the “ghetto” Orthodox to maintain the status quo “for a while longer” to forestall wholesale enculturation of Orthodoxy into a Protestant milieu. We converts have something to learn from this organic procession that cannot be intellectualized, only actualized. After the books, we must join the end of the long line leading up the Volga, across the Mediterranean, the Artic Ocean, to America.

    I greet you, Christopher, with much empathy. My son, once an altar server and choir member, has left the Church because his convert wife finds our parish too ethnic.

    Forgive me, a sinner,


  13. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    As a recent convert to Orthodoxy I have not been able to experience the full cycle of the church year yet. I look forward to the Forgiveness service.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    The first year has a wonderful newness about it – even surprises. But each year only deepens things. The more you lean into it the more it yields back.

    My first years as Orthodox were spent mostly in the altar, which meant a great deal of nervousness and fumbling. My last assistant was very knowledgeable and an invaluable help to me (one of the reasons I hired him). I have a greater comfort today but find that the you never touch bottom in the services – tread water perhaps – but the joy is marvelous. There are times I want to make the choir stop so we can back up and listen again to a stichera or part of a canon. We can’t of course, so I go back after the service and look at it. The richness is beyond description.

    I am told (and have seen this occasionally) that there are also word plays (particularly in the Greek) that just can’t be translated. All of which is to say that I will not have plumbed the depths in my life time.

  15. Christopher Avatar

    “To choose Church based on what we like rather than what we believe to be the truth is a dead end street. ”

    I agree Fr. Stephen, which is why we are still Orthodox. Recently, with our current parish being mostly converts, the situation has been a bit better (on the ethnic front), however we are now simply jaded and more than a little sensitive. All this is, as you say our cross to bear, but boy do we have some stories to tell. I will mention one that is not even about a parish I was a member of:

    About 7 years ago not my wife and I were visiting her sister and brother-in-law in Chicago. At the time they lived at JPUSA, one of the last surviving Christian communes from the Jesus freak movement. In any case we all decided to go to an Orthodox Church. Not being familiar with the area, I chose Bishop Job’s cathedral church because I knew it would be in English.

    We were standing very close to the wall, with the icons right above us. When the deacon came out to cense, he simply walked along and people parted for him. When he came to us, I knew what he was doing so my wife and I parted towards the center of the church, but my sister/brother in law were left behind in the confusion. The deacon (who had comically thick glasses) simply proceeded to continue on, swinging the censer in a high circle in front of him, literally inches from the face of my relatives who had pasted their bodies to the wall with very frightened looks on their faces, afraid of being hit. I should have taken better care of them, but a little awareness on the deacons part would have been nice also.

    In this same service, not long before communion, my brother-in-law had propped one of his feet up on one of what looked like tiny stools that lined the wall of the church (he was not used to standing of course, but they insisted). Turns out they were not stools, though I admit I could not tell what they were and had never seen them before or since. We found out they were not stools when one of the member of the church walked up and accused my brother and law of “putting his feet on the “chairs”” and asking why “he would behave that way”. He apologized profusely, and after a bit the ladies wrath (which was written all over her face and her language) calmed down and she walked away.

    After the service was over we talked about it and he said he simply kept praying for her (internally). They were obviously taken aback by not only the foreignness of it all, but the strange insensitivity of the deacon and the simple hard heartedness of the women.

    They converted to Roman Catholicism last year.

    When bringing visitors/family/non-Orthodox to church with me, I now do a couple of things. I always sit with them in the chairs provided for the old/infirm. I insist that they sit ‘with me’ and explain that those standing are only showing off. I also make an effort to follow along with them in whatever service books are provided. I also make an effort to ‘protect’ (not sure of the correct word here) them from the rest of the parish, even if it is only to explain that they do not have to take a bit of blessed bread from everyone (however well intentioned they are ;).

  16. Christopher Avatar

    Dear Mary Lowell,

    Your description is beautiful. I can see the *spiritual* beauty, but surely you can see how to someone in our culture (even an otherwise pious Christian) it would be all but incomprehensible. It is almost as if you are lost in the aesthetics of it all. I don’t think you are, but you can see how most would see it that way.

    To avoid the Gnostic tendency, it is incumbent upon us Orthodox to find a way to explain an all night vigil, and to pass this treasure on to the children of these same émigrés who will not be children of “mother Russia” but will be instead children of this culture. Otherwise it will stay what it is, and tribal act closed off to those on the outside…

  17. Christopher Orr Avatar

    Mary I agree that we need to learn from this organic procession. My difficulty in Orthodoxy has only been in having to leave the parish I was baptized in which was extremely ‘ethnic’ in its piety and practice, served full services, etc. but was all/primarily in English.

    It’s hard to learn when taught in a language you don’t understand while also learning the non-verbal fullness of Orthodox practice, art, actions, smells, etc. If language wasn’t really the issue, then non-anglophone Orthodox wouldn’t care what language the services were in, but they do.

    It’s also hard to have to attend “English services” in “American” parishes that are not simply translations of the Divine Services as served in the tradition of a venerable local Church, but an attempt at repristinization following the liturgical theology of this or that academic or seminary. Subdeacons intoning the Great Litany, serving Liturgy in the Nave on the Tomb of Christ, not using the curtain and doors, audibly praying the ‘secret prayers’ of the priest, cutting Litanies, etc. It’s hard to know what one will get moving from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, diocese to diocese, parish to parish. (Of course, to non-Orthodox eyes it’s all still otherworldly and Orthodox, but…)

    In these first generations, I just don’t understand why we can’t just have a Moscow parish in English, an Athens parish in English, a Tblisi parish in English, rather than an Americanized Orthodox parish in English where we seek to actively cultivate our own idiosyncracies to be more American, rather than to simply be Orthodox Christians in America.

  18. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Your sensitivity to the needs of the non-Orthodox is commendable. St. Anne’s is so convert aware that we probably err in the other direction, perhaps distracting the cradle-born. Every situation is different. On the other hand, imagine taking someone to a Pentecostal Church for their first time. It’s not just the Orthodox…

  19. Christopher Avatar

    Sorry for the multiple posts but one last thought: Did I mention that our current parish is OCA? It has been a struggle for me, in that the moral crises going on right now in the OCA reveals another side of the situation of Orthodoxy in America. Only one bishop out of 11 (not including the retired bishops) who seems to have any real interest in the 8th commandment? What sort of institutional ethos and culture is it produces such a weak response to lying, cheating, and stealing? Why is it of all the corporations and governmental organizations I have worked for, they all would have responded with a more recognizably “Christian” and “Orthodox” way than the OCA herself!!

    I wonder if Orthodoxy does not have as much to learn from the “protestant milieu” as it has to teach…

  20. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Depends on the website you read. The sorts of troubles that have afflicted the OCA are rampant in many places and are having their repercussions in the OCA. A priest has been deposed, serious discussions are happening. I am patient and confident because I believe in the actual honesty and goodness of the people involved, even if sometimes I doubt their competence. This is a world away from people who said one thing about Christ in a service and believe and said something else in another context. I am troubled, but not perplexed.

  21. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Stephan,

    I don’t know about the honesty and goodness of the people involved. If we “judge by the fruit”, I can’t say I would side with “honesty” and “goodness” yet. So my trust level is quite low. Competence is without a doubt not strong. But I think it a mistake to make too strong of a distinction between competence and “goodness” as such. Take the pedophile scandal in the american Roman Catholic church. Most involved (those who at various times had the power to ‘do the right thing’) appear to be “good” people, not overtly trying to do wrong, but their competence (or is basic common sense the proper concept?) was sorely lacking.

    I have found myself asking this question: If instead of something rather mundane like a few million dollars, what if it had been the physical and spiritual health of our children? Would the Bishops/MC have reacted fundamentally different (i.e. with competence)? I don’t think so, they don’t appear to have the sort “goodness” that leads to competence. I think there would have been lots of hand wringing (just like in the RC church) about “for the good of the church” and other such things, and not a lot of Christian praxis.

    Perhaps what I am saying (thinking out loud here) is that Ortho-doxy (right praise about Christ) is not enough – it is necessary but not sufficient. One has to do the right thing also. Perhaps it is about minimum standards. It is one thing for me to bear my cross and forgive. It is another thing entirely to ask my children to bear the cross of “incompetent” of adults around them. In fact, it is my Christian duty to protect them (to the extant that I can) from such “crosses”.

    I have been thinking about this allot as my wife and I (God willing) will be having children soon. When I think about the impotent response of my parish, I really question rather the OCA is the place for children…

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Christopher, Your questions are well-asked, but I think it’s a little bit like apples and oranges. I have committed my children, on the one hand to the OCA, to another to the Antiochian Archdiocese, but ultimately to the care of God. I have to raise them well enough to judge between good and evil and to know that man is not to be trusted simply because he carries a title. That has always been true, everywehre, and will not cease.

    I learned difficult lessons as a child in the Baptist Church – which I choose not to write about at length for they are very isolated and cannot be generalized from.

    Nevertheless, we all do well to pay attention that people say the right things, and then do what they say. It’s a dangerous world out there.

  23. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    I find it interesting that people are so concerned about the development of the Orthodox Church in Amerca and ethnicity “issues”, act as if the history of the Church itself is not thousands of years long! These things take time folks and we shall never see the day when there is a distinct American Orthodoxy, in fact, our children’s children will not see it, because these things are so long in developing. They are cultural as well as religious because Orthodoxy is a lived faith. Orthodox who are “ethnic”, have very long histories with Orthodoxy, we do not. But glory be to Jesus Christ! It will come, if we do our jobs right.
    Our job is exactly what St Seraphim said, “Acquire the Holy Spirit! Save yourself and a thousand around you will be saved!”
    I refuse to worry about the issues in the OCA, I have enough to worry about with my own sins.
    I have been Orthodox 7 years now, it has been my pleasure to have been told off many times by those who “know better” what I should be doing in Church, so what? I smile and I thank them. God provides them to make us better Christians.
    Its all in your outlook.

  24. Mary Lowell Avatar

    Christopher and Christopher Orr,

    I confess to all the experiences that the two of you describe, and more. Don’t get me started! But let me further confess that I do not bring visitors to our parish anymore – I cite books and hyperlink them to web sites like “Glory to God in All Things.”

    Yes, you found me out, a hypocrite and coward! I have an evangel heart, but no way to justify what I can hardly endure myself. God, help me!

    At the same time, aesthete that I am – though no romantic, Orthodoxy grows ever more confirmed in my heart [and mind] as peraslavl, Right Glory, with every day that passes. Having passed through a very difficult time for many in my home parish (but, having nothing to do with skin tones), I am simply glad it has hung together, the Beauty of the Cross more clearly before us. No lack of English spoken here, albeit sloppily and, at times, quasi-glossolalia, without reference to our Pentecostal brothers inferred.

    What can we do about close encounters with the censer, skipped litanies, shouted prayers leading up to and trailing the anaphora, and no explanation of all night vigils (we don’t need them in our Archdiocese because we don’t do them, blame the Turk and the turban or the allure of minimalism fanned by fast-food substitutions for the canon)? The fleshpots of Egypt, we converts know all too well, but our get-rich boater-brethren are not so wary of the deceit of Amerika. Lord, have mercy!

    What can we do, observing that Orthodoxy has only recently become a “go to” destination for shipwrecked denominationalism? Before the last 15 years or so, the only converts were those who married in; I know personally the tragedy of that accommodation. But what we are witnessing now is a dam break, gushing forth a mighty confluence of “ethnic” streams (we former WASPs have ethnicity too, though what Arab knows from French Huguenot, Scot Knox-ite, Anglican high-nose or lowly Welsh Anabaptist?). And what does it matter, the dregs of all our genetic deposits are suspended in this historic channel of tributaries to the Living Waters of the True Faith.

    Speaking of dregs, did I mention that a Cossack nearly decapitated me in Novgorod for standing on the right side of the nave? Almost a martyr unaware for lingering on the “wrong” side after lighting my candle before the relics of some saint I cannot remember. I just laugh now because I was the foreigner there. Let us love the stranger always, be he/she from Ephesus, Alexandra, Kiev, Jerusalem or Appalachia.

    Thanks be to God that “the wheat and the tares” are allowed ” to grow up together”! He will willow out what must be consigned to the flames of every lingua mater and DNA, including the husks gripping Mother Russia’s seeds that have fallen on our rocky soil, having been rescued from their grandparent’s holocaust. Only now is the extent of that great reservoir of blood being revealed as a Russian tale.

    OCA/Antioch/Athens or liberal ROCOR, ha! good one, God found us and placed us in their flow. Now, the real work begins on all divides of the Mississippi. Patience, humility and long-suffering, Brothers! Would that I had these along with my longing for Beauty.


  25. StSusannatheMartyr Avatar

    Amen, handmaidmaryleah! As to all your points.

    I’m a recent American convert from evangelical protestantism. In terms of the authenticity of Orthodoxy in America, I far more fear the impatience of some of my fellow converts to “americanize” Orthodoxy than I do the sometimes overemphasis on ethnicity among some cradle Orthodox.

    I actually love hearing some services or parts of services in languages I don’t understand in order to help me stop overintellectualizing faith so much and to perceive the beauty and mystery of faith in my heart. I try to steer clear of relying too much on other converts for my understanding of the Faith even though they speak a jargon I understand and I try to gravitate to lifelong or long-term Orthodox even though initially their words and actions and perceptions might seem strange to me. They have much to teach about a lifetime in the Faith; and I have much to learn. I’m eager to embrace some ethnic Orthodox customs because it reminds me of the universality and unity of the Church, and because I recognize that in proper balance, custom can reinforce belief. I long to learn more about saints from foreign lands and different times because they help to lift me outside my own culture and time, and point me toward the Kingdom of Heaven.

    And I agree that one of the greatest gifts of Orthodoxy to me, a sinner who has spent far too much time standing in judgment of others, is the recognition that the only person I can be responsible for reforming is myself and that’s a fulltime job!

  26. Christopher Avatar

    handmaidmaryleah & StSusannatheMartyr,

    I have to respectfully disagree with some of what you say here. I think there is much confusion as to what is “cultural”, and what is “Orthodox” If what you say is true Mary, then we can’t say St Paul, St. Luke, St. James and the rest were “Orthodox” because they were obviously neck deep in their Jewish culture and the Lord had just been around. St. Paul, no way, he had just met the Lord on the road to Damascus – maybe his children’s children were lucky enough to actually have been in the Church…;) Of course this is absurd. I agree that our “job is to acquire the holy spirit”, but what is it about Orthodoxy that is True and a help, and what is it about it which is “Russian” or “Greek” that may or may not help, and is often an impediment.

    St. Paul says he “…To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some….”. I think it would be an error of enormous consequences to say that Orthodoxy is something that takes generations to develop and is all but impenetrable to the American culture. THAT is Gnosticism.

    That’s not to say there is not much to learn from “foreign Saints” and the like, but it is because they are Saints, not because they are “foreign”.

    I understand what you are getting at (I think) when you say:

    “They are cultural as well as religious because Orthodoxy is a lived faith.”

    What I would ask is that do you believe we then have to in a sense become “Russian” or “Greek”, in cultural/custom sense, to be Orthodoxy, that is acquire the Holy Spirit? If so, then woe unto us, for God has not saved the gentiles…

  27. StSusannatheMartyr Avatar


    Forgive me if I blurred the lines between ethnic custom and Orthodoxy. You are right to point out the extremely important distinction. Many of my lifelong Orthodox friends will also lament that many in their parishes equate and even elevate ethnic identity over Orthodoxy. I agree that is not right and obscures or supplants the Faith. But does this mean they must renounce their own ethnic identity? Does it mean that out of love and respect for my friends who brought me to Orthodoxy, and out of a recognition that I am now also the heir not only of specific beliefs but of a community of believers, I cannot incorporate a few new ethnic customs? Thus, because of my Serbian godparents, there is always roasted lamb on my table at Pascha now. It could be hamburgers and hot dogs and still be Pascha but lamb now helps to make the day seem like the Feast of Feasts that it is. And soon on St. Nicholas Day, I’ll plant some grass seed on a white dish with a red vigil candle and watch new life sprout as the Nativity of our Lord approaches. It would still be Christmas without it but it’s a visual reminder of the coming birth of our Savior. These and other small but rich customs can enhance, though not supplant, faith.


  28. nancy Avatar

    In my parish which is a mixture of convert and cradle Orthodox, there is a tendency on the part of some to suggest that converts can know very little or REALLY understand the Faith because they are not cradle Orthodox who somehow mysteriously have imbibed the Faith through their mother’s milk. And many converts, wanting to be humble and non-judgemental, believe that cradle Orthodox must have some “hidden” wisdom. (Gnostic, I don’t know–perhaps) We are all sinners, and cradle or convert, we need the Church, and we can learn from one another. I think it’s time to work to eliminate these distinctions, to work on our path to salvation, and thank Our Lord that we have found the Orthodox Way.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    What matters, is indeed that we acquire the Holy Spirit. This will be marked by love of God, love of neighbor and of enemy. Judging no one. If someone lives this, He is Orthodox. If someone else knows thousands of details about the typicon or customs, etc., but does not love his enemy, he does not yet know God. And knowing God is the heart of the faith. I suspect that humility is required of us all. Never anything less.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One of the difficulties that we have with being in America is the lack of shared ritual. We are, by and large, a non-ritualistic culture. We tend to adopt aspects of other culture’s rituals as it pleases us, use the parts we like for a season without out depth, then go on to the next thing. Neither do we have much appreciation for the past, must less reverence, it is what is new that counts.

    The idea of sharing important acts within the context of a community outside the immediate family is quite strange to many Americans which makes the idea of tradition (big T or little t) is also strange. So when St. Seraphim’s words on the acquistion of the holy spirit are quoted it is quite easy to interpret them in an individualistic manner rather than in than in the context of community formed in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ bearing one another’s burdens.

    Traditions bind communities together, they can also calcify them if they are not filled with the Holy Spirit. That is a dilemma as is the proper response to moral cowardice, moral tupritude and heretical teaching. It seems to me that the Scripture was written in part to address just such issues.

  31. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    If one seeks stumbling blocks, one will surely find them…
    you write: “I think there is much confusion as to what is “cultural”, and what is “Orthodox” If what you say is true Mary, then we can’t say St Paul, St. Luke, St. James and the rest were “Orthodox” because they were obviously neck deep in their Jewish culture and the Lord had just been around. St. Paul, no way, he had just met the Lord on the road to Damascus – maybe his children’s children were lucky enough to actually have been in the Church…;)”
    Of course they were Orthodox! Are you saying that St Paul didn’t learn his priestcraft from the Apostles who were in Jerusalem? He was at the stoning of the protomartyr St Stephen, who was an archdeacon! The Church existed prior to St Paul becoming a member. Whether one is of Arab, Russian, Greek or American, etc. descent, it doesn’t matter, it does matter is whether one believes in the Orthodox manner, that makes you Orthodox!
    The Church was developing but it existed, make no bones about it.
    I said no such thing about becoming Russian or Greek, we are in the U.S., Though I acknowledge our brothers and sisters in other countries, here…
    I happen to be an American Orthodox Christian, and I understand that the young Church in this country will take much time to develop its own liturgical style, local customs, etc. Sure, we will take, borrow, beg from our older brothers and sisters in the faith, they did too, when they were new to the faith all those years ago…
    Lo, American Orthodxy will look and sound abit different, it will be recognizable for what it is, the Holy Orthodox Church, the Truth about Jesus Christ, His Bride on earth.
    Musical styles are already developing…
    Christopher, the Truth is the truth, right now it seems that your head is in the way of your heart, okay. The Orthodox Church will be here whenever you are ready, and even if you never are…
    May God bless you on your journey…
    the handmaid,
    you write: “What I would ask is that do you believe we then have to in a sense become “Russian” or “Greek”, in cultural/custom sense, to be Orthodoxy, that is acquire the Holy Spirit?”

    No one can become what they are not, and God does not require this, neither does the Church. However, I can and do recognize my spiritual heritage and if it is in the Holy Orthodox Church, it also belongs to me and I may partake of it, drink of its beauty, immerse myself in its richness, depth and spiritual knowledge. One does not just switch churches and call it “good”. One becomes, “Orthodox” and begins to commit to living their faith. It is the life of a Christian believer. Sure some fall away or fail to commit, perhaps they misunderstood the nature of the commitment of oneself to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
    Yet when one says “American Culture” what springs to mind? Surely not Orthodox religious life? Yet there was a point in time, when if you spoke of Greece or Russia and spoke of their cultures, the Orthodox Church was so entwined in that notion one automatically though of it.
    This is more of Fr. Stephen’s One Storey Universe, for the Orthodox percieve God to be “everywhere present and filling all things”, we can do nothing without His grace, though we are fallen and sometimes do it badly…
    The Orthodox Church in America has much catching up to do, but this is done by each of us living our faith in Christ, passing our faith to our children, and evangelising.

  32. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    sorry editing and accidentally hit submit….

  33. Damaris Avatar

    It is indeed hard to get a balance between culture and faith. I spent seven years as a Protestant missionary in a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. During my time there I constantly struggled with the question, “What is the Gospel and what is simply my culture,” and I tried not to set up inappropriate cultural barriers for the Gospel. This was especially true as I saw the temptation in new converts to use the acquisition of cultural aspects to lord it over the humbler new believers — we have an electric keyboard, we have an overhead, we mix men and women and sit on chairs, not the floor. Of course, as a “non-denominational” missionary, I was not there to spread the Church, but only the Gospel — a mistake in retrospect. But I will say that those who could have spread the Church — the Russians representing a large portion of the population — had no desire to do so, nor to share the Gospel with their oriental neighbors. Both the locals and the Russians believe and say that the Orthodox church is the Russian church, and they have no interest in it being universal.

    I say this not to criticize the Russians of Central Asia. They were just themselves emerging from seventy years of Communism and desperately trying to recover their own faith and culture. But they did illustrate for me the wrong way to reach out to other cultures. For goodness’ sake, the Russians don’t even have the Liturgy in their OWN (modern) language yet!

    How can we tell what aspects of the Church culture are the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and what aspects are to be scrapped if they cause offense or difficulty to seekers and converts? I appreciate what Christopher said about St. Paul and the dangers of gnosticism; I also take Islam as a caution, insisting that you have to learn Arabic and Arab culture in order to be a believer.

  34. An Anxious Anglican Avatar
    An Anxious Anglican

    Father Stephen: Do you remember which biography of St. Seraphim of Sarov it was that you read?

  35. fatherstephen Avatar

    It was the small biography by Zander. The longer work, I do not tend to recommend. I think that some poor decisions were made in editing it. Not everything a saint says should be printed. I find the Zander book, published by St. Vladimir’s to be more than sufficient.

  36. Christopher Avatar


    We are on the same page as far as St. Paul, etc. I wrote what I did as a negative illustration – meant to show an absurdity a certain connotation of what I took you to be saying. Sorry for the misunderstanding!

    Just as a note, I have been listening to some Fr. Hopko tapes recently. I understand he currently is writing a book that will touch on this very subject as to what is “Orthodox” and what is “cultural”…

  37. Christopher Orr Avatar

    That I think gets at it the nub: where does ‘culture’ stop and ‘Orthodoxy’ begin when dealing with such an incarnational religion the grew up in cultures with no separation of church and state? Is language part of religion or culture? is there a difference when speaking about Greek vs. Slavonic? between modern and ancient forms of a language? Are headscarves, lack of pews and bows and prostrations ‘too ethnic’ or are they simply ‘Orthodox’? Are mystagogical explanation of the Liturgy and hagiography ‘ethnic piety’ or ‘Orthodoxy’?

    These terms tend to be left unpacked in discussion, and lead to confusion. For me, ‘ethnic’ refers primarily to the use of a language in the Services not understood by a large number of parishioners, those present and/or members of the neighborhood the church resides in. Secondarily, I define ‘too ethnic’ as sermons in that other, un-understood language and a stress on activities and events for a single ethnic group as being an integral part of that church’s or parish’s mission, raison d’etre (rather than an important activity by and for a given ethnic group in the parish, perhaps even using church property). There is a fine line between celebrating one’s own ethnicity and making those that do not share your ethnicity feel excluded. This is perfectly acceptable in a Cultural Club, but not in the Church of Christ – unless you don’t believe that the Orthodox Church is for people other than Greeks, Russians, Romanians, etc., which is un-Orthodox theologically.

  38. Christopher Avatar

    Mr. Orr states:

    “For me, ‘ethnic’ refers primarily to the use of a language in the Services not understood by a large number of parishioners, those present and/or members of the neighborhood the church resides in. Secondarily…”

    I think this is a good pragmatic definition. To this I would add the underlining ‘mindset’ that leads to thinking that a church’s “raison d’etre” is ethnic identity. Even if this mindset is unconscious (I think it is largely for the majority of those in an ethnic parish), how does one get there, mistaking all these extra’s for the Gospel?

    My wife and I converted in a small greek parish. After 2.5 years of regularly attending this church, we still had other regular attendees asking us “why are you here, your not greek”? They were not hostile, they were simply perplexed. We realized the church was more about “greek” than anything else so we transferred to the antiochian parish in town…

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    You description of ethnic is useful and not off the mark in many places. The Greek Othodox, particularly, have to wrestle with this more often. But they have unique history and I am very sympathetic and do not care to judge them. I do not think there is any unkindness nor lack of love of God that is present, just a unique historical situation. Time will make a difference and has in many places. But they have to be allowed to work it out. As for those of us who are from some other ethnic background, sometimes we have to do what you and your wife did Christopher. Only don’t let a root of bitterness creep in, as St. Paul would warn. We didn’t spend hundreds of years under the Turkish yoke. It leaves a mark.

    I think people fail to understand that the vast bulk of Orthodoxy has recently or not too long ago come out from one or another dark oppression that the West has never known the likes of. And yet Orthodoxy remains. But much mercy is required as we let others heal.

  40. Christopher Avatar

    I hear what you are saying Fr. Stephen, particularly the need to resist the temptation to bitterness. However, I can’t say I understand the connection to the “Turkish yoke”. The Greek war of independence was 1821-1829. That means the suffering of most of my ancestors under the yoke of a cruel British empire, a potato famine, a long struggle for parity in a America that considered the just barely above the negro on the scale of “humanity”, all of more recent history – and yet, none of that defines my religiosity, nor my parents. Only marginally were my grandparents affected. I wonder if we do not too easily make excuses for those who for whatever reason, would have the church an ethnic club. Does not mean we have to judge them, but we can recognize it for what it is.

    Now I understand that for many in the world, American memories are notoriously short. We are a “new” nation in not only history, but in attitude towards things that came before. Perhaps this is how God is providentially using us – we are to help the Greeks (and Russians and fill_in_the_blank) “forget” (or better forgive) past wrongs done…

  41. Christopher Orr Avatar

    I think what you are attempting to do Christopher is to find language to understand and discern what is going on while at the same time judging as to what you need to save your soul. While serving on the parish council is a good thing, it is not a good thing for each person at a particular stage in their spiritual life. Serving in the altar, teaching Sunday School, serving on the Stewardship Committee, volunteering at the Ethnic Festival, etc. are the same, as is the choice of which Orthodox parish to worship in. Not all doctors can equally treat all illnesses, though they are all doctors. All Orthodox parishes offer the same medicine of immortality and grace, but not all are the ideal place for you to receive that medicine. As monks and nuns have particular spiritual needs from their confessors, so too converts, reverts and cradle Orthodox from various backgrounds have different, specific needs – and each and every priest and community can’t be prepared ahead of time for all of them.

    I have found that some of these ‘good things’ are just beyond me and I have forced myself to be less active than I would like to be so as to not become bitter about the things I can’t handle. Sometimes the best thing is to just attend Liturgy and leave afterwards. While the parish is a family, everyone’s families can be very different. My parents have very little about them of a Mediterranean-style family, and that’s fine. Some families are not as ‘high touch’ or ‘high maintenance’ as others, and you shouldn’t be afraid to check out as needed – as long as you maintain a regular sacramental, worship and prayer life. That’s what I have found helps as the American-who-didn’t-marry-into-Orthodoxy in a homogeneous ethnic parish.

  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    On the Greek experience – the War of independence was fought in the 1820’s, but the ethnic cleansing, driving almost all Greeks out of Turkey (Asia Minor where they had lived since long before St. Paul wrote letters to them there) as well as bringing Turks back home, was not done until the 1920’s and is still felt deeply. Before 1920, Constantinople (Istanbul) was fully 50% Greek, while today there are less than 2000. Just because you’re Greek doesn’t mean you wanted to live in Athens, when your family had been in Constantinople since the 400’s A.D. There are many subtleties of which those outside their experience are not aware. It is, again, an argument for patience and mercy, we have not walked in their shoes. My ancestors were both English, Scot and Irish – but in the various misdeeds done to one another, nothing compares with the Turkish yoke – not even close. It does not justify behaviors at present, but it should beget mercy – since we all seek mercy from God. That’s all.

  43. Gina Avatar

    We can relate to the “you’re not Greek, why are you here?” question. My husband got the same question after he had started attending an Armenian church. It’s one reason we are with the Copts and not the Armenians. Not to disparage them, because I am sure it was not lack of charity but perplexity and not knowing what to do with him- how to serve him (ie, a charitable impulse in fact)- that lay behind the questions.

    The Copts, however, have somehow become aware of evangelism and being sensitive to visitors and English-only people. It may be the warm Arab temperament that helps here, but I think it a hopeful thing, because one small sea change can have ripples in attitude. I still see a humility in the Coptic mindset, that they are here mostly to minister to the Egyptian diaspora and their families. On the whole I think they don’t yet know how great their riches are and how much a hunger for them there is, or would be if it were more known, among the general American population.

  44. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for the history and explanation.

    Mr. Orr,

    I will have to think more on what you say. I think it’s good advice on how to situate ourselves vis-à-vis the ethnic parish. Now, if only I can get my wife to understand that we don’t have to have a touch-feely-good feeling about every aspect of the parish…;)

  45. James Avatar

    “It does not justify behaviors at present, but it should beget mercy – since we all seek mercy from God. That’s all.” Father Stephen, how is this carried out in a practical way? If the behavior is wrong and needs correcting, then how does showing mercy effect the situation? Are you saying that because one seeks to be merciful he should do or say nothing to correct the wrong behavior?

  46. fatherstephen Avatar


    You will not be able to correct every situation and some situations are not under your authority to correct. You could speak to the priest who has responsibility, and he may exhort, rebuke, etc., but some things remain broken. If wrong behavior were easily corrected the world would not be as it is.

    Christ teaches us to have mercy even to the unthankful and the evil (Luke 6:35). If correcting wrong behavior is something that lies within your responsibility, and you can do it gently and without anger, then do it. We do not have a commandment to do violence to another soul in correcting them (how would we want God to correct us?).

    Generally, my experience is that if you practice mercy consistently you will be silent more often than you speak, judge even less, and pray for everyone involved. The desire to correct wrong behavior has a great deal of mischief mixed in it and we should be very wary of it.

    If that sounds surprising, I would say that most of Christ’s teachings on mercy and forgiveness provoke questions similar to yours. Should I let my enemy just kill me? and questions similar to that.

    In direct answer to your question: how is this carried out in a practical way – if the behavior is wrong and needs correcting…how does showing mercy correct the situation? First, it changes your heart which is also one of the “problems” in the situation, not because it is “bad behavior” but because if your heart is not merciful and forgiving then you’ll find yourself crushed by your sins. The “situation” is not necessarily to be judged by the practical but by the heart as well.

    My comments on the peculiarities of the Greek experience is a way of saying that there is a wound there in many hearts. Such wounds are hard to heal, and until they are healed, much “incorrect behavior” will flow from those hearts. But such hearts should find mercy from us, not judgement.

    Practically, you can forgive someone who offends you. This we are commanded to do. You can pray for them. This we are commanded to do. Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.

    Whereas Proverbs says, “Rebuke a fool and he will hate you.” Not calling anybody a fool here, but simply saying that correction often does not bring the desired practical result. But nobody can keep me from forgiving or showing kindness in return for rudeness or praying for those who offend me. According to the teaching of the Fathers, it is that behavior of the heart that will save the world.

  47. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    Thank you Fr Stephen for that answer; once I was “corrected” with a huge bear hug (I am a petite gal) by member of another parish, though he had grown up in the parish that I attended at that time… Well after church he came up behind me and out his arms around me, and crossed my arms over my chest and said that when going up to recieve Commnunion we should “do it” this way, taking my wrists and crossing my arms over my chest.

    He didn’t know that I have an artificial shoulder and have had multiple shoulder surgeries, and that it is far easier for me to cross my arms over my chest the other way. He also did not hurt me, well except for my pride a bit…

    I cannot remember how I responded but I think it was okay because, he felt the need to correct me another time when I was reading the hours before Church, he was wrong then but I was a bit wiser and just nodded and said thank you and kept reading…

    When I switched parishes, I met Big Helen, who was in her nineties; everyone knew Big Helen. She let everyone know what she thought, felt and knew about the church and you personally. We lost her this past year.
    I miss her, because as I have come to learn through the grace of God, and the wisdom and teaching of the Church (and because my priest has told me on several occasions) those like our Big Helen and the one who corrected me, make us better Christians. God has given them to us as a gift, if we will accept them. Helen taught us to be patient, loving when it wasn’t easy to be so and my hugger taught me that it is okay to be wrong and to be corrected, pride has no place in Church.

  48. Milan Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen, I just discovered your blog (through the blog of Father Dorin from Roamnia). I am an Orthodox Christian from Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic) and I would like to share the impression I got reading the texts published on your blog. As a person living in one “traditionally Orthodox” environment – I am really fascinated by the life of the Orthodox Church in the “western world”, by the history of the American Orthodoxy, the lives and the writings of the great “new-patristic” theological thinkers like Father Georgios Florovsky, Father Alexander Schmemann, Father John Meyendorff, Father Anthony of Surozch, Father Calistos Ware… I can feel the same “new-patristic” spirit (which is the Spirit of the living tradition of the living Church of Christ) on this blog. Therefore, I would be glad to establish a contact with you and to receive your blessing to publish a shortcut to this site on my blog.

  49. Christopher Orr Avatar

    that we don’t have to have a touch-feely-good feeling about every aspect of the parish…;)

    Well, I’m sure she isn’t touchy-feely-good feeling about everything about you and she married you and you married her – as is the same with my wife and I. Love and family is about something other than ‘good feelings about everything’. As my mother’s grandmother said regarding her recently deceased husband, “you don’t have to like someone to love them”. there are a lot of people I can like for only short periods of time, but I am still required to love them. A friend often said that most saints are pretty prickly personalities to be around, but that probably says more about we sinners than it does about the saints.

    God bless your struggle, which I am sure will bear fruit with a little patience, prayer and TLC.

  50. Christopher Orr Avatar

    Thanks, Father for your advice and perspective on dealing with brokeness and what our response should and should not be. Very helpful. I love the phrase, “The desire to correct wrong behavior has a great deal of mischief mixed in it and we should be very wary of it.”

  51. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you for your very kind words. Please feel free to establish a link or shortcut. I will return the favor and place your site on my “blogroll”. May God bless!

  52. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    One must use all possible means to support and calm oneself and

    one’s neighbor. Of all means, the principle one is humble

    supplication to the Lord and placing one’s infirmities, and one’s neighbor’s,

    on His Almighty help and deliverance. What is

    impossible for us to correct is, without a doubt, possible for

    God, by Whom we live and move.

    – St. Moses

  53. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I don’t disagree with anything you say in response to James. That said, I can’t help but pay attention to this nagging voice that tells me it’s not the whole story. A demonic voice perhaps? I don’t know, help me out here. First, while we are focused on our own hearts, sin continues in the world – in other words I can not eat, have a family, even love my neighbor in practical ways if sins of others (mixed in with my own) are pressed sorely upon me. We do not live in society based on anarchy, but of ordered laws (mostly) not because of mercy but because of overt practical “correction”, which as it turns out is a source of mercy. As we talked about upstream, it’s a dangerous world and one of your Christian duties is to others (perhaps your wife and children, perhaps your neighbor). I think what I am trying to say is that “turn the other cheek” is not an absolute – you can’t take it and make it a practical response to every situation. Here I am thinking about St. Paul who clearly says that the sword of the state is the wrath of God. Does St. Paul reject “turn the other cheek” then? Of course not, but he does not absolutize it either.

    Second, I sometimes think mercy is the metaphorical boot to the behind. I certainly is with children at times (just before they reach into the fire). It certainly seems that this is even our duty. handmaidmaryleah’s quote is apt, but what do we do when it IS possible “for us to correct”.

    I realize it’s not within my power to “correct” these ethnic tendencies of say the greeks, but it is within my power to move on and not despair. Think of the moral crises going on right now in the OCA: What does “mercy” command us to do now? Is it merciful to do nothing, or does one withhold? Is withholding a merciful action, or does it come from a wrong desire to “fix” the world – complaining about the spec while ignoring the log? These are the sort of questions that fall into Christian praxis. My limited experience is that, at least in the parishes I have been a part of, over zeal against sin is NOT the problem, rather it’s opposite…

  54. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I understand the points – I don’t feel any particular compulsion to teach practical solutions to theoretical problems. I do feel compelled to teach mercy and to practice it as fully as possible. Such mercy and kindness will also bring us into difficult places – where prayer and grace may give us what theory cannot. Of course I believe in correction. But in the particular case at hand the most I could think of to do was to practice mercy and kindness.

  55. Mary Lowell Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Today, I have struggled mightily with what to do in a situation that seems uncorrectable. Your words of mercy and peace, Father, caught me up short. I have tried over and over again to “correct” the direction of the circumstances to which I refer, but the response has always gone in the opposite, often generating “bitterness” on both sides, the other’s and mine. It’s not that I have insisted on my way, I don’t think, but there is so much operating in personalities that the issues that seem so clear to me seem hardly open to objectification in the other; they turn rather on internalized, subjective histories that surely include my own. Forgive me for being so guarded. I will get to the point.

    Given the excellent history you offered earlier in this string about the particular “Greek” experience with its long accommodation to circumstances for which we Anglo converts are hard put to find parity, I find it little wonder at my failure to improve a very recent history, and one unrelated to this present discussion about ethnicity. But I believe in the here and now of our linear living out and hopefully working out our salvation “in fear and trembling” there is an analogy. The great “mischief” at work against the “sons of God” is that we are self-fooled into forgetting that prayer is the indomitable weapon of peace that changes everything (ourselves and the other)! Prayer often appears to be passive medicine because we want the instant and observable results that confrontation beckons. I am shamed by your gentleness, and I will go back to my closet and work on it some more.

    Thank you,


  56. Christopher Orr Avatar

    I find that simply being and doing the right is witness enough, and more clearly heard than is giving correction to one who will and can not hear it, yet. This is still action, though not of the dramatic sort we like to imagine is so much better. Suffering patiently and not buckling, continuing to give humble witness to the right is very powerful – heck, that’s what the cross and the martyrs are all about, right?

    The key seems to be in not mixing in bitterness and anger and judgement that sets ourselves up as somehow not equally sick just because we aren’t sick in ‘their’ ways. Being measured with the measure we mete out is not about measuring the same things: a cup of grain and a cup of sugar are different, but they are both cups. ‘Ethnicism’ is one kind of sin, the same amount of which we can hold in pride, judgement, hard-heartedness, lust, anger (murder), covetousness, greed, etc. They may be equal amounts of different sins, as if the difference makes ‘our sins’ not ‘as bad’.

    I very much identify with your struggles and problems. The nationalism infecting the Church almost drove me out of the Church, but as Fr. Stephen said before, “95% of Orthodoxy is simply showing up”. Staying put, being buffeted, not buckling, perservering teaches us spiritual things we didn’t know we needed to learn, but of which we are grateful once the trials and temptations have subsided a bit. Be kind to yourself and take care of yourself, but don’t give up, keep praying, keep communing, don’t obssess, read a good book and see a good movie, love your wife, plant something, and pray some more and worship and flee the temptation of judgement (perhaps not staying for coffee hour, maybe not going to the ethnic festival) and I bet you’ll see something on the other side that you are happy you learned. After all, no one like training but we all of us like to win the race. Lord, have mercy on we sinners.

  57. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is said that the Apostle John in his later years preached only one sermon and gave only one spiritual direction: “Little children, love one another”. I am sure that those hearing his constant admonition grew irritated with it. I know I would. Yet like the Jesus Prayer, few words contain much wisdom and power. Real love is without expectation. It is given, not demanded. Love leads to sacrifice.

    My sister-in-law, who is put off by official religion and tends to syncretism, said to me recently, “We have enough religion to hate one another, but not enough to love one another.” A hard saying for me, yet I have to acknowledge the essential truth of it especially for we who profess to follow Jesus Christ.

    St. Paul gloried in the Cross, in persecution and in his own weakness. The parable of the feast to which the original invited guests did not come indicates to me that we Christians are the maimed, the halt and the lame. A big part of being a Christian is bearing one another’s burdens. In parish life, we do it whether we want to or not. We might as well learn to do it with as much joy as we can.

  58. James Avatar

    “You will not be able to correct every situation…” True, but is not the opposite true also?

    “The desire to correct wrong behavior has a great deal of mischief mixed in it and we should be very wary of it.” Is this always the case? Could not the desire to correct come form a loving heart, with the good and well being of others in mind (to include the one initiating the offense?) It has been my personal experience that the people who have helped me the most in life have been those who cared enough to correct me. I am not sure of your use of the idea of “mischief”. It seems to imply that anyone desiring to offer correction or see correction exercised would have a suspect motive. We are taught to be loving, forgiving, and merciful, but why would this exclude offering loving, forgiving, and merciful correction to others when it is offered without anger or bitterness and with the good of all in mind? I concur that the authority lies with the priest in most if not all cases and that he should be consulted.

    I am thinking in a more general application of this principle than just the ethnic issue, but it seems that the principle applies there also. I know that there are those who have suffered greatly in the past and I do not wish to minimize that suffering. But, do we all not have to forgive (our enemies) and move on following Christ to our future with him? Tradition is a wonderful thing, but a tradition of clinging to past wrongs as an excuse for perpetuating present injustices is behavior which is in need of correction, is it not?

  59. fatherstephen Avatar


    I agree with all of your points. My observation about mischief and correction is just something I’ve noted over the years as a pastor. The Church is full of broken people. Some broken people have a need to fix others – sometimes the motive is compassion – other times it’s other things. Often efforts at correction (and here I do not mean the simple things we tell children, or the obvious things we have to teach to those who are new to Orthodoxy) end not so well because correction is a gift from God both to the one doing the correcting and the one who receives it.

    If the correction is not a gift from God no good will come of it.

    In Lent the Orthodox prayer of St. Ephraim is prayed many times a day. Among other things it says:

    “Grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother.”

    There is nothing in the prayer about “help me correct other people.” Apparently the Fathers were much less concerned about the problems driven by needs for correction than the problems driven by our need to correct others. In fact, it’s Biblical. Perhaps you see the needs differently. I can only say what I’ve seen and been taught.

    I can readily agree that some particular fault is a sin – but that doesn’t mean that there is a “ready-at-hand” correction for it. Thus, we find ourselves needing to become compassionate and merciful, and patient with the failings of others.

    I can tell you for a certainty that if you are not patient with the failings of others your life will become a miserable hell. Patience is one of the keys God gives us so that we can let ourselves out of the hells we’re always making.

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