An introduction to Spanish Renaissance polyphony from an English Orthodox archimandrite

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This is one of my favorite Latin polyphonic pieces, arranged by Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero de Sevilla (1528-99). The words of the prayer, “O Sacrum Convivium” are part of a poem by St Thomas Aquinas honoring the Eucharist as the Sacred Banquet.

I would like to share with you a remarkable account of how I came to first hear this magnificent choral piece. The very kind Archimandrite Fr. Avraamy (Neyman) introduced me to this composition a year ago during my time studying on exchange at the University of Edinburgh.

Following Liturgy on a late January day, he invited me to dinner at his cozy, modest house on the other side of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Fr. Avraamy is a very kindhearted man, and his beard reminded me very much of both Albus Dumbledore and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). Possessed of a fine voice, he renders the priest’s parts of the Liturgy in a beautiful, classic Queen’s English. I will always remember that pleasant afternoon in his home, during which he regaled me with stories of his childhood in a Roman Catholic preparatory college in Southampton, England. I especially remember how he described to me the magnificent choral music which surrounded him during his Catholic school youth.

Bemoaning the decline in polyphonic choral music in the Roman rite following the adoption of the Novus Ordo Missae in 1969, he wanted to draw my attention to the magnificent choral traditions which he remembered from his youth, growing up around Renaissance-inspired music in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church in England and the (then much more traditional) Church of England. Besides the majestic choir of Westminster Abbey (London’s most historic Anglican church founded by St. Edward the Confessor, technically the Collegiate Church of St Peter), Fr. Avraamy especially praised the work of the Roman Catholic choir of London’s Westminster Cathedral.

Following the dinner he cooked (which consisted of tasty fried fish, and a warm pudding for dessert, which he informed me was called, to my immense surprise and mirth, “spotted dick“), Fr. Avraamy showed me the above choral arrangement of “O Sacrum Convivium” sung by Cappella Nicolai in Amsterdam’s principal Catholic church of St. Nicholas.

Members of Cappella Nicolai in St Nicholas Church, Amsterdam.

Members of Cappella Nicolai in St Nicholas Church, Amsterdam.

Fr. Avraamy is an archimandrite serving in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Along with the two priests mentioned below, he has charge of the Archdiocese’s parishes scattered across eastern Scotland.

During the first month of my incredible semester-long stay in Edinburgh beginning in January 2012, I began attending Liturgy and vigil at the warm, close-knot Orthodox community of Saint Andrew. The community was — and still is — led by three exceptionally kind archimandrites; Fr. John Maitland-Moir, the 86 year old priest who founded the parish out of his home in George Square; Fr. Raphael Pavouris, a wonderful Greek hieromonk who spent time on Mount Athos, to whom I went for confession, and whose kind sister and mother were also pillars of the community; and of course, Fr. Avraamy.

The delightful Father John Maitland-Moir, the beloved octogenarian founding priest of the Edinburgh Orthodox community of St Andrew.

The delightful Father John Maitland-Moir, the beloved octogenarian founding priest of the Edinburgh Orthodox community of St Andrew.

This delightful and diverse community, an icon of the catholicity and universality of Orthodoxy with many Greek, Cypriot, Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian immigrant families, as well as British converts and American expats, has for its church a small but cozy house at 2 Meadow Lane. This is located right next to the Meadows, a lovely series of parks and fields roughly analogous to New York City’s Central Park.

Reminiscent of the early Christian house churches, the sanctuary itself comprised a large room in the front of the house, with dozens of icons covering the walls and a small iconostasis at the eastern end of the room. I will always remember the wonderful people I met while attending the divine services here. Deacon Luke and his very kind wife, both converts to the faith, the English convert Stephen, a very kind student at the University, Jakub Hampl, a Czech computer programming student, and so many of the other Romanian and Greek students all made lasting impressions on me.

Father Avraamy (Neyman), left, and Father Raphael (Pavouris), right. These exceptionally kind men are pillars of the Orthodox communities in Scotland.

Father Avraamy (Neyman), left, and Father Raphael (Pavouris), right. These exceptionally kind men are pillars of the Orthodox communities in Scotland.

Recently, a friend brought this wonderful November news story to my attention which appeared in a popular Scottish newspaper. The growing community, having expanded to over 100 worshipers on a given Sunday, is hoping to buy a deconsecrated former Protestant church which will give them more space.

“. . . chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.”

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“The Saints grieve to see people living on earth and not knowing that if they were to love one another the world would know freedom from sin; and where sin is absent there is joy and gladness of the Holy Spirit. The Saints in heaven though the Holy Spirit behold the glory of God and the beauty of the Lord’s countenance. But in this same Holy Spirit they see our lives too, and our deeds. They know our sorrows and hear our burning prayers. When they were living on earth they learned of the love of God from the Holy Spirit; and he who knows love on earth takes it with him into eternal life, where love grows and becomes perfect. The souls of the Saints know the Lord and His goodness toward man, wherefore their spirits burn with love for the peoples. They were chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.”

-St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938), my patron saint.

A beautiful description of the invisible links which hold together heaven and earth, this world and the next, through the prayers of the faithful to the saints and the saints’ active prayer and unceasing love for us. 

Bible study with Metropolitan Jonah – 1 Corinthians 8

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In the latest meeting of his Bible study group at St John the Baptist ROCOR Cathedral on January 25, Metropolitan Jonah presided over a fascinating discussion of 1 Corinthians 8. This talk ranged from the history of first century Christian participation in both Jewish and pagan sacrificial rites (and how to apply St Paul’s biblical lesson when eating in non-Christian settings today), to the question of how to seek after knowledge while retaining a spirit of humility.

Metropolitan Jonah also touched on how to demonstrate our love for God through our love for those in our communities, and posited that coming to understand the world, and to know God, through the noetic dimension, the eye of spiritual consciousness, is akin to suddenly opening up to a three dimensional reality after previously comprehending only two dimensions.

Several observations on Metropolitan Tikhon’s enthronement banquet

I was not present at this banquet for many reasons, the simplest being that I had a lot of homework to do this past weekend. Several friends who attended asked if I wanted a ticket, and I genuinely appreciate their kind offers. While I wish Metropolitan Tikhon well and genuinely pray that his primatial ministry brings much-needed healing to the OCA, I could not in good conscience attend an event celebrating his enthronement. 

Despite receiving numerous letters, e-mails, phone calls, and petitions from concerned faithful urging them to action, and despite several scholarly essays written which highlight major flaws in their July 16 statement, the OCA Synod still have not followed Patriarch Kirill’s admonition in his congratulatory letter to Metropolitan Tikhon to “make comfortable the further life of your predecessor at the Metropolitan See of Washington”. The reality is that if I had attended the event, as I was asked, my presence would have served as a silent expression of support for (or indifference to) the circumstances and actions which brought about Metropolitan Jonah’s horrifically unjust treatment by the OCA Synod. 

One of my friends who attended the banquet filled me in on many of the details. I was immediately struck by the oddity of the seating arrangement as she described it: the leading OCA administrators, Chancellor Father John Jillions and Secretary Father Eric Tosi, were seated on the raised dais near Metropolitan Tikhon. Several of the bishops, including Bishop +Michael of New York and New Jersey — the man who received the most votes from the delegates at the Seventeenth All American Council in Parma, Ohio — were seated lower than the priests, at floor level. I’ve always had an eye for any potential symbolism in the seating arrangements at any major events, from state dinners to Church councils, but this strikes me as a rather obvious sign of the indifference of many in the OCA administration to the dignity of the episcopacy. Orthodoxy is at its core a hierarchical faith, but not one which supports any kind of inverted hierarchy, with priests seated above attendant bishops at an enthronement banquet. 

This was no real matter of concern or surprise to me compared to what my friend told me about the addresses of two leading OCA priests closely affiliated with the Syosset-based Chancery and central administration. She told me about the remarks which Chancellor Fr. John Jillions and Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, the OCA Director of External Affairs and Interchurch Relations, made to the assembled guests. According to my friend, in his remarks, Fr. Jillions praised +Tikhon as a “true leader” who was “conciliar” in his approach to Church affairs and had a history of working well with the Synod and Chancery staff. This, as my friend took it, implied that Metropolitan Jonah did not.

What I found so strange about Fr. John’s wording is that he seems to measure a Primate’s success (or failure) based on how well he gets along with and secures the approval of those in the Church administration. This strikes me as a very bureaucratized and institutional-minded approach to the Church, seeing and understanding “the Church” in this sense only in an administrative and institutional way, in terms of departments, offices, and chanceries.

On a practical day-to-day level, of course every hierarch needs to work out a kind of modus vivendi to coordinate and execute shared administrative responsibilities with his fellow bishops on the Synod and with Church administrators, but what Fr. John’s words imply is, rather, that the Metropolitan is responsible to living up to the expectations and meeting the standards of the OCA Chancery. This view of the primatial role of the Metropolitan is a marked departure from a traditional Orthodox understanding of the roles and responsibilities of a primate of a local Orthodox Church. Church administrators are not to  measure or judge whether or not a Metropolitan is successful in his role based on their impressions of him, nor is he to be held to their standards; such an approach is to treat him more like a chairman of a board than as the primate of a local Synod of the Church!

My friend told me that Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky praised the bishops and all that they did to keep the OCA going during what he referred to as “the time of troubles”; she took this as a thinly veiled derisive reference to Metropolitan Jonah’s tenure. What I found interesting, and rather amusing, as a student of Russian history, is that the Time of Troubles (Смутное время) was the period of conflict and interregnum in the wake of the succession crisis precipitated among several weak contenders for the throne after the death of Tsar Ivan IV Grosniy, the last of the man Rurikid princes. During this time, the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth led by King Sigismund III repeatedly invaded Muscovy and attempted the conversion of the Russians to Roman Catholicism. The irony in all this? Fr. Leonid was born in 1943 in Warsaw!

Another friend who attended the banquet described to me his shock to hear Fr. Leonid praise Metropolitan Tikhon in his introduction with these words, again a thinly veiled attack on Metropolitan Jonah: “This one is no Lone Ranger!” I respect Father Leonid for his many years of engagement with various ecumenical bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, but I find it difficult to view him as a man of integrity given that he engaged in such derisive remarks about a former Primate of his whom he seems to delight in insulting, regarding as almost an enemy. This just doesn’t seem to me like a Christian way of thinking — or speaking — especially from someone with so many years of active service in the Church.

Metropolitan Tikhon has been enthroned as the new Primate. These events remind me of a line from Shakespeare’s play Richard II : “Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king” (3.2.50-51), or in this case, an anointed Primate of the Church. The OCA begins a new chapter, yet for now, I, like so many of you, continue to pray for Metropolitan Jonah, that the OCA Synod at last see fit to release him to ROCOR, where his growing ministry is deeply appreciated and valued, and that the Synod honor Patriarch Kirill’s warning to give +Jonah a fair and just settlement. Only then may what so many of us hope and pray for happen: he may start a new chapter in his life, and his ministry in the Church.

Thoughts on the sanctity of all life

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Why do I have the right to be alive right now writing this? Why do you have the right to be alive now reading this?

Ultimately, if you defend any means of artificially ending life – the death penalty, abortion, suicide, or euthanasia of the elderly or of the disabled – as ‘situationally variable’ (as sometimes morally justifiable, and therefore intrinsically ethical or right in certain situations), then you have to deny that anyone has an absolute right to existing at all. If you believe that, in certain circumstances, it is morally justifiable to end a life, then life itself can have no inherent meaning as sacred or intrinsically worthy of protection.

If you believe that you have the right to terminate a developing life in utero, or execute a convicted criminal whom a court and society judges to be of no value, or euthanize an elderly person who is judged to be a burden to his or her caretakers and to broader society, then life itself can have no intrinsic meaning for you beyond what you subjectively get out of your own life or hope others get out of theirs. Thus, your life matters to you and those people in your life, but ultimately your life doesn’t actually have inherent worth to the world or to existence. Thus, your life matters to you, and the lives of your friends and loved ones have real value for you, but Life itself is gray, neutral, of no certain worth or value.

Why then do you have the right to be alive and thinking the thoughts you are thinking right now, and someone else who was aborted, executed, or euthanized doesn’t have that same right? If you defend the notion that some developing lives aren’t worth their cost or burden to the would-be mother, then why should your mother have ever borne you? If you defend the notion that some elderly people are a burden on their families and society, and that we should mercifully hasten their end, then why shouldn’t this be done to you when you are old and vulnerable, even if it is against your will?

These are major existential questions, and the confusion and internal struggle which they evoke in someone unsure of how to answer them can only be avoided by affirming that either everyone has the absolute right to life, or no one does.

If you believe the latter, then why fight for your right to live as you please in any way, since what you do with your life, and your life itself, doesn’t actually have any inherent worth or meaning whatsoever? This kind of thinking is the seed of nihilism and the inevitable consequence of taking the moral relativist position that not all lives are worth protecting.

The above image, taken at yesterday’s March for Life here in Washington, D.C., has been circulating widely on the internet, especially on Facebook. It makes use of a popular Facebook meme. Abortion (while on my mind due to the March occurring here yesterday) is not the principal focus of my thoughts here. The image featured above prompted me to engage with the much broader, deeper question of the value – objective or subjective – of life itself.

The sign which the marcher holds contains just four simple words. These words convey a very powerful witness: “Respect ALL the life!”. But what does this really mean? To me, it’s a whole philosophical worldview. Believing that abortion is a terrible tragedy, the loss of a developing life, is just one part of it. Babies developing in utero, infants whose babble we can’t understand, the physically and mentally disabled, the psychologically impaired, the dying elderly, and even murderers who might in our eyes deserve death: all deserve life. All received life from God, or from Providence or “Nature”, to use the Enlightenment language, but no one receives life from any laws or government.

All of us received our lives without any part in the process other than simply coming into this world. So what right have any of us to say who should be allowed into this world and who shouldn’t? Or when someone should be sent out of this world, and when they should be sent in? If we entertain these notions, we risk taking on the role of God. This thinking produces tyrannies beyond measure.

The foundation of the idea that life is a mystery and a gift which is not ours to dispose of when unwanted, or to take away when inconvenient, is thus the foundation of a civil and decent society. What is the alternative? A society in which people desperately want their lives to matter, but have no basis for them to actually have any inherent worth. Ultimately, in a society where life has no inherent meaning because people have agreed that lives can be morally ended at certain points, in certain circumstances, no one can actually justify their existence, their very living, as anything beyond sheer luck and fortune in time and circumstance.

Why am I alive writing this? Why are you alive reading this? If you believe that human life can legitimately be ended by artificial means ,whether through abortion, suicide, euthanasia of the elderly or the dying, or state-sponsored execution, then you really can’t answer that question except with an acknowledgement that your mother decided to bring you into the world. If you truly believe your mother could have been morally justified in, for whatever reason, deciding not to have you, then ultimately you cannot believe there is any real foundation for your existence, or that of anyone else in your life, or in this world. Life is either inherently worth protecting in all its forms, or it is inherently worthless in all forms. Which position would you rather take?

Bible study with Metropolitan Jonah: 1 Corinthians 7

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In his latest Bible study at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Jonah teaches from 1 Corinthians 7. He touches on the subjects of spiritual and bodily freedom from and slavery to the passions, the decline of societal understanding of the family as a sacramental community, marriage as an ascetic vocation of mutual devotion and self-sacrifice, sexual life within marriage, and ascetic struggle against the passions.

Metropolitan Jonah opens the January 17 Bible study at St John the Baptist Cathedral with everyone together singing the prayer "O Heavenly King".

Metropolitan Jonah opens the January 17 Bible study at St John the Baptist Cathedral with everyone together singing the prayer “O Heavenly King”.

Among many of his memorable quotes are these:

1) On the mutuality of spiritual freedom and bodily slavery and spiritual slavery and bodily freedom:

“The bodily state of earthly captivity doesn’t really matter if one is inwardly spiritually free. Just as the state of external freedom doesn’t matter if one is inwardly bound by one’s passions and by one’s sins. That state of [being in] slavery doesn’t necessarily mean that a person has to be enslaved in spirit. We can be free [in body] and be completely enslaved to our passions. And so to be free from our passions and free from slavery to sin is the real freedom, and not simply socio-political freedom.”

2) Internal freedom and spiritual agency expressed and fulfilled in the mastery over one’s passions and temptations Faithful marriages are a Church-sanctioned vocation for those not wishing to live in lifelong celibacy, but marriages must be monogamous:

“To be spiritually free, and I think this is really the whole point of so much of this epistle, is to have that absolute internal freedom, which is that one is in complete control of oneself, that we’re not enslaved to any of our passions or our sins, we’re not under compulsion to do any kind of [immoral] behavior or any kind of activity, we can control ourselves completely. That’s certainly the context of St. Paul’s teaching on marriage and celibacy, that it’s better to remain celibate if you can control yourself, and if you can’t control yourself, you can marry, but you have to remain faithful within marriage, you can’t be unfaithful on the side.”

“And that’s part of this inward freedom, whether it’s the more radical form of celibacy or the slightly less radical form of a chaste marriage where the husband and the wife are there solely for one another and not for anyone else. Both are ascetic forms of life. Both are a context for self-denial [of self-gratification or pleasure-focused lust]. It’s through that denial that that inner freedom comes, so that, for example, a person isn’t driven to be unfaithful, but has self-control.”

3) On the moral decline in society and the dissolution of traditional family life due to people giving into temptations:

“One of the biggest problems that the Church faces, and that society faces, is the dissolution of the family. Divorce and remarriage, or of people simply living together without any kind of blessing on their relationship, which usually also translates into no real commitment, and therefore no real accountability for the relationship. When you’re married in church, there’s accountability for the relationship, right?

“Ultimately, you’ve not only had all these people come and witness that you’ve had these prayers said over you, the marriage has been crowned, it’s been brought into the Kingdom [of heaven], that it’s something to last forever, and on and on, and that means, essentially, that you’re accountable, you’re accountable to your bridesmaids and groomsmen, who are not just there to look pretty, they’re not just there to hold up the crown and bonk the couple on the head once in awhile, but these people are your sponsors in marriage, the bridesmaids and the groomsmen.”

“A lot of these things [having sponsors at one’s wedding to serve as reminders that one is pledging to live a married life of mutual commitment and loving sacrifice with one’s spouse] have become kinds of cultural relics. These [practices] were incredibly important in keeping and maintaining the marriage within the community of the Church, and within the greater local community. The same thing applies to godparents.”

4) Marriage as an icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church, and healthy family life as a model for healthy community life within parishes:

“As St. Paul teaches elsewhere, marriage is an image of the whole community, it’s an image of the Church, it’s an icon, it’s a sacrament of the Church, it’s a sacramental presence of the Church. Everybody needs a sacramental community to which to belong. One either belongs in the exclusive relationship with one other person, one’s spouse, in marriage, or in the inclusive relationship of a greater community in a monastery.”

“Now St. Paul doesn’t teach specifically about monasticism because it was only nascent at the time, in the communities of widows and virgins, you can see from the texts already existed. But everybody needs to belong to that sacramental community. Marriage and family is one of those communities, and that’s why it’s also important to maintain that structure within the community of the Church, of a parish as a community of sacramental communities, a community of families where the family is that unit which has been sanctified.”

“The parish itself is a place where people come and go, it’s not sanctified in and of itself, but it’s a community of sacramental communities, each of which manifests and reveals the unity of Christ and the Church. The unity of husband and wife, which then is a fruitful union bringing forth children just as the union of Christ and the Church is a fruitful union bringing forth spiritual children.”

5) Marriage is understood as a divinely sanctioned relationship based on ascetic self-sacrifice and mutual striving in devotion, in which the couple works out their salvation together, building each other up and bearing each other’s burdens. Asceticism in life in general, and marriage in particular, is foreign to most non-Orthodox, especially Calvinist Protestants and those with a post-modern liberal worldview:

“St Paul is trying to show that marriage is an important way for people to work out their salvation. . . [He] is emphasizing an ascetic vision of life. The Lord emphasized an ascetic vision of life. Orthodox Christianity is about an ascetic vision of life. That’s what differentiates Orthodoxy from non-Orthodox, because most non-Orthodox churches, the Protestants in particular, have definitively rejected asceticism as having any value. If you get into a Calvinist system, it doesn’t make any sense [to have asceticism]; if you’re [predestined to be] damned, there’s nothing you can do about it. We reject that definitively.”

“This ascetic approach is equally important both for those who dedicate the totality of their lives to that asceticism, in other word the single [celibate] man or woman as one who need only care for the things of the Lord, whereas, the reality is, if you’re married you have to worry about your spouse and your children, you have to worry about not only feeding yourself and putting a roof over your head, but also about feeding your family and keeping a roof over their heads, and God knows all of the other kinds of distractions. But there’s still an ascetic component to it [marriage]. Those who reject this in favor of a kind of late 20th century anti-asceticism, in other words, who hold to a liberal worldview, can’t understand a passage like this, it would make no sense to them [in their worldview].”

6) On sexual relations and mutual understanding within marriage:

“Remember that one of the things that [St. Paul] emphasizes is that you should abstain together by mutual consent, and then come together by mutual consent. Now, that’s a whole lot different from any ideas of subjection or subjugation. It’s all about mutual consent. Here again, St. Paul is very balanced in his teaching; it’s all about mutuality and the relationship of marriage. I think that’s the real core of the Christian ideal and certainly of Scriptural teaching on marriage.”

7) On the true meaning of asceticism as a means of pursuing inner spiritual discipline and maintaining the purity of the soul:

“As St. Paul says, there is a certain value in learning how to master oneself, and there is a value, which the Church teaches, to modifying our diet and doing various kinds of things and not doing other kinds of things at certain times of the year. But that’s ultimately not really what asceticism is about, that’s kind of a side thing. Real asceticism, my own synthesis of the Fathers, is not about what you eat or don’t eat, but about whether or not you watch your thoughts, and give into your thoughts, and whether you cut off evil, sinful judgmental and hateful thoughts, and thereby maintain inner purity.”

“That’s the kind of asceticism that really enables you to cast off everything and go and follow Christ, because you’re not attached to anything, but detached from all the passions, in a healthy way. I think that’s the real asceticism up which ultimately we are called to work up to. Living the Church’s rules is a valuable thing, but that’s not the goal in and of itself.”

“The rules are a means to helping us bring ourselves under control, and a means reminding us to try to sanctify our lives. That’s why the Fathers teach that while it’s important to obey the rules, you find out what works best for you. So, for example, if you’re a nursing mother, you’re forbidden from fasting; you’ve got a different kind of asceticism. If you’re old and weak, you’re forbidden from fasting. But if you’re young and strong and full of passions, you better fast, really hard! (laughs).”

“Each person needs to find out what works for him or her to bring them into deeper and deeper communion with God, because some things do and other things don’t, and each person is uniquely given a different gift. As St. Paul says, to some is given the gift of chastity, to some is given the gift of marriage, and the reality is that one is not higher than the other, except for the person to whom that gift has been given.”

Metropolitan Jonah laughing with the study group on Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green's observation that the Orthodox are the only Christian group which still needs to write bass parts for its church music.

Metropolitan Jonah laughing with the study group on Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green’s observation that the Orthodox are the only Christian group which still needs to write bass parts for its church music.

Memorable words on how to live: “Love one another and forgive”.

Excerpted from the Eulogy for newly-reposed Archpriest Fr. Alexei Ohotin offered by Fr. Alexandre Antchoutine (here is a link to the full text of the eulogy):

“His final testament was this (before his death he spoke it to his grandchildren, and to all of us): observe two commandments – just two – and you will be saved. Love one another and forgive one another. Forgive every sin. All of our intrigues, all of our selfishness, and all of the things we do to hurt one another are irrelevant. Forgive them. The second is this – perform acts of charity, because through your charity the Lord will forgive your many sins.”

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Here is a link to the article about his funeral Liturgy, celebrated by Bishop George, vicar bishop to His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad (ROCOR). May Father Alexei’s memory be eternal! Вечная память!