Happy Anniversary to The Orthodox Word

Forty-five years ago today, Eugene (the future Father Seraphim) Rose and Gleb (the future Abbot Herman) Podmoshensky started the journal The Orthodox Word as a work of the Father Herman of Alaska Brotherhood they had formed (which would become the St Herman of Alaska Monastery). On 29 September, for $200, Eugene received the printing press he’d purchased. The Archbishop John who blessed their work, is the (now) St John Maximovitch.

On September 30 [1964], Eugene recorded: “Today, less than twenty-four hours after our printing press arrived, Archbishop John came to our shop ‘by chance.’ When he saw the press his first thought was to bless it with holy water and prayer, which he did immediately. Thus our press is spiritually born on this day.”

The title of the Brotherhood’s magazine was given by Archbishop John. Gleb had originally thought of calling it The Pilgrim, after the outstanding pre-Revolutionary Russian journal The Russian Pilgrim (Russkiy Palomnik), and also after his favorite book, The Way of a Pilgrim. Together with Eugene, he chose five possible names for the magazine and sent the list to Archbishop John, asking him to give his blessing to the one he thought best. On September 30, 1964, the same day he blessed the printing press, the Archbishop wrote back, suggesting a title that the brothers had not submitted:

Dear Gleb!

May the Lord bless you in the second year of the Brotherhood’s activity, and in its necessary undertakings. It would be good to call the publication you have planned “The Orthodox Word.”

I’m calling God’s blessing upon you and all the members of the Brotherhood.

+Archbishop John

Within a few weeks Eugene and Gleb printed the first page on their new press; one of the spiritual instructions of St. Seraphim of Sarov. Their dream of starting an Orthodox journal was becoming a reality, although from a financial point of view it seemed inconceivable. “We’re dreaming about a magazine and we can’t even afford the paper!” Eugene wrote to Gleb. “Nonetheless, if we work hard God will bless us.” (Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, pp 290-291)

That journal is still in circulation, and to it I subscribe as so many others.

Aristotle, Akrasia, the “Practical Syllogism” and Procrastination

The proverbial procrastinators’ dictum runs something like: Why do today what you can put off till tomorrow? Many of us struggle in various ways and at various times with procrastination. Our reasons for procrastinating vary widely. Some of us dread doing a particular task. Others of us just prefer to do the pleasant thing we are engaged in now, rather than that which we should be doing or completing. The emotions and desires motivating procrastination run the gamut. Nor does it seem that knowing these motivations, and knowing that procrastination often creates further and greater difficulties, and even knowing the good one ought to do, actually helps with these motivations. Knowledge alone doesn’t seem enough to motivate to action.

There are a variety of ways that the current self-help or time management literature use to address the issue of procrastination, many of them focusing on psychological analyses and self-awareness, with others focusing on incremental behavioral changes. But reading these works only seem to exacerbate the problem: they add to our knowledge without changing our acts.

Aristotle provides resources for us on this matter, in his account of the virtuous life in the Nicomachean Ethics, and particularly in the seventh book which deals with the character flaw of lack of self restraint. What we are fundamentally dealing with, when it comes to procrastination is the tension between rational deliberation and choice (boule and proairesis respectively) and desire (epithumia, although in a critical passage in De Anima III.10-11, Aristotle translates orexis as “desire,” which is one aspect of motion in the soul). That is to say, the procrastinator knows the good he ought to do, but doesn’t do it. If we have a coherent account of the soul, how motion in the soul relates to actual behavior, we have a much better account by which to understand how the procrastinator knows the good but fails to do it, and to formulate responses to soulish vices and lack of self-restraint.
Continue reading “Aristotle, Akrasia, the “Practical Syllogism” and Procrastination”

Our Father Among the Saints, Gregory, Illuminator of Armenia


Troparion of St Gregory Tone 3
Thou didst sow the knowledge of God in the hearts of the faithful,/ by cultivating the Faith;/ made radiant by the wounds of martyrdom/ thou didst shed thy light on all./ O Hierarch Gregory, pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

Kontakion of St Gregory Tone 2
Let us the faithful praise Hierarch Gregory/ who is a shepherd, teacher and enlightener;/ and he is an athlete for the Truth./ He intercedes with Christ our God that we may be saved.

–A Life of Saint Gregory, from Christian History and Biography

New School

Her name was Hope, and he loved her because she called him Tiger, and for the way the glasses settled just so as she read the book. She’d read The Mouse and the Motorcycle, complete with motorcycle sounds, and he could close his eyes and see that mouse, the ping-pong ball helmet and the motorcycle racing across the room. How could a boy not have a certain regard for his young teacher when she let him answer roll call like the Fonz; or, on his learning that his desk had been moved into a group of three girls, let him hide under his desk half the morning, finally coaxing him out with a “C’mere, Tiger”? And when she led the second grade class out to recess by marching, well a boy could take on the world after that.

They’d chart the weather, and there was something about lions and lambs. They watched a Monarch butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. The whole class went out to set it free on a windy spring day.

This was Kansas, so there were regular tornado drills, and all the children would be taken to the tunnel underneath the school hallway floor where they’d sit for a few minutes, the dim lights lighting up the nuclear danger signs. He never minded the drills, because it smelled like being in a cave, and he could imagine the terrors and adventures that lay out of sight along the unseen dark end of the tunnel.

There was also the terror of the German Shepherd he faced everyday as he headed home from school. He could have gone around the back way to his family’s mobile home, but it was longer and there was a certain shame in not fronting this test. So he would walk by as slow as he dared, counting out the steps. That dog barked something fierce, and though there was always the fear that he would slip his leash and charge him, it never happened. Well, except for the one time almost all his worst fears were realized. That dog did slip his leash and did charge at him. He froze, but didn’t yell or shout. And that was it. After a moment, the dog loped back to his porch, and the young boy breathed out and walked on. He did allow himself to walk on the opposite side of the road after that. But still every day he walked by as slow as he dared, and let that dog bark. It’s what a boy does if Hope calls him Tiger.

[Other Kansas reflections are here.]

Your Own Historical Jesus

[Note: On his FB page, AKMA posted about his historical Jesus class, and I was prompted to pull out of the archives this little humorous piece I wrote a few years ago from the inspiration from AKMA’s historical Jesus class that I took. You have to know a bit about the “quest for the historical Jesus” to have even a minimal appreciation.]

(With apologies to Depeche Mode)

Continue reading “Your Own Historical Jesus”

Kansas Farmers

By the time a Kansas farmer becomes sag-bellied and stooped, he has learned a thing or two worth telling. Most of the world, of course, passes this by, mostly from indifference, sometimes from derision. But the life of a Kansas farmer is a surprising thing. It is a life of unlooked-for and unrecognized mysticism; a creational monasticism, with its own hours and liturgies.

For the Kansas farmer starts his every day rising in the dark to meet the divine providence. There is a virile resignation here that is a wonder to the uninitiated, a dynamic fatalism that leaves a signature, a mark of a man’s sweat and blood. The farmer accepts the day and what it brings, but he does not leave it unformed. His is a backbone of stubborn grit. Grace may lack a little in the language he uses, calling down divine curses on a stuck irrigation valve. If he is unschooled, still his is a calculus of the motion of a tractor through the field, and the interval of the setting sun; his a trigonometry of the seasons and the arc of harvest.

Most Kansas farmers are church folk, though they wear their faith easy and with little affectation. A farmer might appear nervous and apologetic ‘round the young preacher boy from college, but only due to the perceptions of book learning and articulation. Otherwise, a farmer has in him the questioning ability of Job, and the capacity to keep that soft-handed Bible college boy tied up in theological knots. A farmer might wear his suit jacket to the Sunday meeting, but he’s like as not to put it on over a pair of overalls, bringing a bit of God’s earth in to the pew with him on his ragged boots. He will petition God for the things he cannot do: to bring the rain, to stop the flood, to grow the wheat, to make the calves healthy. He will thank God for his food, his shelter, his family. His prayers will echo the Jacobian turn of phrase, for this is his Bible, and one would never refer to God with the familiar “you.” He is a self-reliant man who intuits if he does not know he must anchor his self-reliance in something bigger than himself.

The world of the Kansas farmer is not gentle, nor is it kind. The ancestral curse is his daily reality. He will bury his children, his parents, his brother. The winter will be hard and lean. He lives every day at the point of epic failure. Every day, he will face the question of himself: is he man enough for the trial? A man might lose his arm in a cutter. And if he survives, he will face a different sort of test. This is a mortal world. Memento mori.

This is the way of it. This is what a Kansas farmer knows. His life and choices shape him. He doubtless gives little time to intellectualizing all this. His philosophy and theology have no technical vocabularies and books. Rather his doctrine is thread on a different loom.

In the diner over coffee, at the church potluck, at the mechanic’s shop, a Kansas farmer will learn to weave a narrative. The tales are simple, often exaggerated, and usually self-deprecating. They are told and retold often enough, the women folk shaking their heads. These are no literary works of art, to be sure, but the building up of an understanding from the stones and timbers of daily life. When one can learn to speak in metaphors and the third person he may find there a form of wisdom.

[Other Kansas reflections are here.]

Saint Thekla of Iconium, Protomartyr and Equal-to-the-Apostles

Troparion of St Thecla Tone 3
Inspired by the divine teacher’s words/ thou wast inflamed with love for thy Creator./ Thou didst disdain all earthly pleasures/ and endure wild beasts and fire./ O glorious Thecla, companion of Paul,/ entreat thy divine Bridegroom/ to grant us His great mercy.

Kontakion of St Thecla Tone 8
Radiant with virginity and adorned with the crown of martyrdom,/ thou wast a bearer of the Faith./ Thou didst turn flames to dew and tame a wild bull by thy prayer,/ O glorious Thecla, first woman martyr.

From the Prolog:

Thecla was born in Iconium of eminent but pagan parents. As a girl of eighteen, she was betrothed to a young man at the same time that the Apostle Paul arrived in Iconium with Barnabas to preach the Gospel. Hearing Paul’s testimony for three days and nights, Thecla converted to the Christian Faith, and vowed to live in virginity. Her mother, seeing that she was now ignoring her betrothed and no longer thought of marriage, tried to dissuade her, and then beat her and tortured her by starvation. Finally, this wicked mother turned Thecla over to the judge and demanded that Thecla be burned. The judge threw her into the fire, but God preserved her unharmed. Then, Thecla followed the Apostle Paul, and went to Antioch with him. Attracted by Thecla’s external beauty, a certain elder of the city wanted to take her for himself by force, but Thecla escaped his grasp. The pagan elder accused her to the eparch as a Christian who disdained marriage. The eparch condemned her to death, and had her thrown to wild beasts, but the wild beasts did not touch the body of this holy virgin. Amazed by this, the eparch asked her: “Who are you and what kind of power is in you, that nothing can harm you?” Thecla replied: “I am a servant of the Living God.” The eparch then released her, and she departed to preach the Gospel. She succeeded in converting many to the true Faith, among whom was Tryphena, a prominent and honorable widow. Then, having received the blessing of the Apostle Paul to do so, Thecla withdrew to a secluded place near Seleucia. There she lived a life of asceticism for a long time and, by healing the sick with wonderworking power, she converted many to Christianity. The doctors and soothsayers in Seleucia were envious of her, and sent some young men to defile her, hoping that the loss of her virginity would also mean the loss of her miraculous power. Thecla fled from these arrogant young men, but as they were about to catch her, she prayed to God for help. A large rock opened up and hid this holy virgin and bride of Christ. This rock was her refuge and her tomb. St. John Chrysostom says of this wonderful Christian heroine and saint: “It seems to me that as I see this blessed virgin, in one hand she offers Christ virginity, and in the other hand, martyrdom.”

Continue reading “Saint Thekla of Iconium, Protomartyr and Equal-to-the-Apostles”

The Anniversary of the Arrival of the Valaam Monks in Alaska (1794)

From the OCA website

On the anniversary of the arrival of the Russian missionaries in Alaska (1794), we remember the New Martyrs St Peter the Aleut, Protomartyr of America, and St Juvenal.

From a bio on St. Herman of Alaska (emphasis added):

Saint Herman of Alaska was born in 1756 or 1760 in Serpukhov in the Moscow Diocese of Russia. He took the name Herman when tonsured a monk in the Trinity-Sergius Hermitage, near the Gulf of Finland, about 10 miles from St. Petersburg. He then transferred to the Valaam Monastery on the islands of Lake Ladoga. He was allowed later to live in the wilderness, a hermit alone in prayer, returning to the monastery only for the services of holy days.

In 1793, Father Herman, with Father (later, St.) Juvenaly and others, were chosen to do missionary work in Alaska. By zeal and the grace of God, they brought to the Faith several thousands of Native Alaskans. However, as time went by, the missionary party was slowly cut down. Some drowned in a ship at sea. Father Juvenaly was martyred at the hands of fearful Alaskans. Eventually, only Father Herman alone, of the original party, remained.

Father Herman settled on Spruce Island, and named it, “New Valaam,” in honor of his beloved Valaam Monastery. He dug a cave out of the ground with nothing but his hands, and lived there until a cell could be built, in which he then lived until his death. He grew his own food, not only for himself but for all he cared for, digging the earth, planting, carrying heavy loads of seaweed to fertilize the earth. He was a great ascetic; he was always barefoot even in these lands of the far North, and wore only a deerskin smock, a podrasnik and a patched rassa (inner and outer cassock), and his klobuk (monastic hat). He slept very little, and only on a wooden bench with no cushion, used bricks for a pillow, and covered himself with no blankets, but only a board.

He advocated for and defended the Aleuts against sometimes oppressive authorities. He cared lovingly and sacrificially for all who came to him, counseling and teaching them, and tirelessly nursing the sick. He especially loved children, for whom he often baked biscuits and cookies.

He was a great and compelling teacher, not only to Aleuts but also to highly educated and “free-thinking” Russians and Europeans who happened to travel there, and this humble monk humbled these “great ones” by his knowledge and wisdom, converting many to the true Faith. Often Aleuts were so captivated that they stayed up with him all night, not leaving until dawn.

The elder was given great spiritual gifts by God. He often foreknew the future, telling people of events that would happen many years later, and which were shown to have come true. By his prayers, God averted forest fires from crossing a line Father Herman made, and stopped a flood from rising past the position where Father Herman had placed an icon of the Mother of God and prayed.

Father Herman reposed in the Lord in his sleep on the 25th day of December (December 12th on the ancient Calendar of the Church), in 1837. He continued to work miracles after his death, answering the prayers of the faithful in intercession for them before God.

Holy St. Herman, pray to God for us.

From a short bio on St. Juvenaly (emphasis added):

St. Juvenaly was the protomartyr (first martyr) of the Americas, dying as a martyr at the hands of natives in Alaska in 1796. He was born in 1761 in Ekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains of Russia, and was named Jacob Govouchkin. When he was tonsured a monk, he took the name Juvenaly, after St. Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the fifth century. He was ordained a hieromonk (a priest/monk), and lived for some time in the Konyavesky Monastery on Lake Ladoga in Russian Finland.

In 1793, Father Juvenaly and Father (later, St.) Herman, and others were assigned to be missionaries in Alaska, and they trekked 8,000 miles across Russia, Siberia, and the Pacific Ocean, arriving at last on Kodiak, Alaska on September 24, 1794. They worked with immense zeal, and within two years, more than 12,000 Alaskans had embraced the Christian Faith.

Father Juvenaly began missionary work on the mainland the next year, baptizing more than 700 Chugach Sugpiag Indians, later many Athabaskan Indians, then moved northwest toward the Bering Sea, but then disappeared. Although nothing is known for certain about the circumstances of his death, local oral traditions among Alaskan peoples tell of the martyrdom of a priest, which appears to have been Father Juvenaly, who apparently frightened some Eskimos who did not understand his gestures in making the sign of the cross, and, by the immediate order of a Yupiat shaman, Father Juvenaly was killed by arrows and spears.
His missionary activity was brief, but zealous and energetic, and showed immense success in a short time in bringing the saving Gospel to the native peoples of Alaska.

Holy St. Juvenaly, pray to God for us.

The Loves of Kansas

There are hills elsewhere, but there is something about the soft waning of the pastel light over the Flint Hills of Kansas that is like nowhere else. There are prairies elsewhere, but there is something about the wide, wide open expanses of western Kansas that invites a man to breathe and expand like nowhere else. Other places have their loves, too, yet one may be forgiven a particular attention to the sort of loves one may find in Kansas.

But let us set down some truths lest a certain enthusiasm carry us into fantasy. Kansas was built amidst the blood and violence sewn up with man’s desire to own another man. Cold-blooded murder is not unknown in Kansas, nor, too, other unholy desires. A husband may exercise his infidelity, a wife her shrewishness, as well in Kansas as anywhere else. Kansas is not the land of fairy tales. And if it may rise to the mythic it does so through a host of quotidian mercies woven together from a common life.

Continue reading “The Loves of Kansas”

Kansas and Second Chances

The four seasons are creation’s gospels in Kansas. By them a man may learn a thing or two about his soul. They teach a man law, and consequences. And, if a man has ears to hear, they will whisper the song of second chances to him in the night. Second chances are hard things. They never come without pain. One can only come to second chances through death and loss.

If it is cold and bitter on Thanksgiving Day, a man will still need to drill, solitary on the tractor his boy waiting in the pickup, that winter wheat the spring waits for. There is no time for thought of himself. A man may do it without grace, of course, and he may curse the wind, the cold, and human frailty. But he will die a death to climb into the seat and pull the throttle. He may wish to be where there is light and heat and conversation. But now he must turn the ground. Now is the hard and painful work. If he does not, like as not everything else will be lost.

It may be hard for a boy to learn these things. He may be shamed to see his one-armed arthritic grandfather grab the fencepost driver from his hands, cussing the while, and drive with two hard swings, that recalcitrant post. But it is a temporary shame, and if he pays attention to the discipline, he will learn what young men need to learn: by the sweat of your brow you will earn it.

If the lessons are not received, then a man will die, in a myriad of ways. He may not get a chance to harvest again, or it may cost him another lifetime or two in debt to do so. Shame may get the better of the boy, and he retreat into himself, soft when he should be hard. Fearful and yielding when he should be made bold by anger. But there is another loss, perhaps in its way the most costly.

The repetition of the seasonal rounds always bring loss. The January calves will fail. The life of the farm will be dessicated by the banker. The ill-formed infant will miscarry. And a man must learn these losses well. He must take them in, if he is to live again. These are hard losses, to be sure, but sometimes, whether he will or no, a man may also lose his heart.

There is no law to this, he will find. It happens when it happens. Sometimes his effort will stave off this death, and he will make it through. But other times, he can try, and pray and cry, but it will still work its way to the end, and in it his heart will die. The strangeness of it all is that he may not even know it till it is far too late, and it is done. A sudden revelation, the secrets of dark hearts in the night told to him. He goes cold, and it will come to him in a day or two that he has been hollowed out. When or where he no longer knows, if ever he did. This is a cruel kind of death. But it too is necessary in its way.

Yet in this death, Kansas will teach a man the newness and hope of spring. A pitiful planting will, fed by winter snows, ripen to a richer harvest than imagined. The farmer may find the land itself released from the banker’s grip. Sometimes that baby will take her breath underneath the wide-open sky. There are such things as second chances.

But not always. For second chances are hard things. If a man’s soul isn’t properly set, if his heart is not strengthened just so, grace may still save him. But if he wills it, he can stay put, the living dead. Kansas will teach a man this, too.

The soul can, after all, choose its own destiny.

[Other Kansas reflections are here.]