On the bright, clear morning of Saturday, April 13 (March 31 O.S, the feast of the repose of St Jonah, Metropolitan of Moscow), Metropolitan Jonah presided over a moving Liturgy at St John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral here in Washington. This beautiful Liturgy honored the memory and legacy of Bishop Basil (Rodzianko), who reposed in the Lord on September 17, 1999 after an extraordinary earthly life and ministry.
It was a great joy to attend this Liturgy, which Vladyka and the Cathedral choir served with deep reverence. The Cathedral was crowded with many people I had not seen before, and all the candle-stands around the main icons were filled to the brim with brightly burning candles, as if it had been a great feast day in the liturgical life of the Church! This was deeply moving, to see so many people coming to honor Bishop Basil’s memory.
The Cathedral is always an incredibly beautiful place, with wonderful acoustics for the choir and clergy singing the Liturgy, but during this Liturgy there was a profound spiritual presence which filled the Cathedral and animated those worshiping. I don’t know if anyone else felt this, but I discerned an overflowing, radiant grace throughout the Liturgy.
Following the Liturgy, we enjoyed a delicious Lenten lunch and wonderful conversation in the parish hall. I noticed that, again, there were many visitors to the Cathedral, including many parishioners from St Nicholas OCA Cathedral where I had my spiritual formation and where Metropolitan Jonah received me into the Church.
Then we headed upstairs to the parish library, the site of most of Vladyka’s Bible studies here, for his engaging two part Lenten talk, titled “Let us take refuge in the Lord”. This is the opening line of one of my favorite prayers by St Isaac the Syrian (alternately known as Isaac of Nineveh). Above you may listen to part 1 of the talk via the YouTube page for St John the Baptist Cathedral.
The image shows St Amvrosy Optinskiy (Ambrose of Optina), one of the most beloved Russian Orthodox elders who lived from 1812-1891. Dostoevsky visited him several times, including after the death of his young son Alyosha, and it is believed that the author’s encounters with the revered Elder Amvrosy formed a major inspiration for his character Fr. Zosima in Brothers Karamazov. Here is a link to more information on the life and legacy of the saint: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Ambrose_of_Optina
“The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God. They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one. The Lord hath looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there be any that did understand and seek God.”
“The Lord loves us so dearly that it passes all description. Through the Holy Spirit alone can the soul know His love, of which she is inexpressibly aware. The Lord is all goodness and mercy. He is meek and gentle, and we have no words to tell of His goodness; but the soul without words feels this love and would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.”
The divide between atheism and theism ultimately reduces to a question of whether one believes and is aware of the existence of another world, a spiritual dimension, or whether one does not believe such a dimension exists. Belief or disbelief in a higher power, in a force or dimension directed by something beyond what our cognitive rational mind can recognize, is a natural and logical consequence of where one falls in answering this question.
Ultimately, as decent as we can and should be in our dialogues and day-to-day encounters with those who differ from us in this regard, we have to recognize that we as theists adhere to a fundamentally different worldview and understanding of existence compared to atheists. We should remember that our particular worldview and understanding of existence as Orthodox Christians especially sets us apart in Western society from atheists whose primary engagement with Christianity is with Roman Catholicism and the vastly different Protestant denominations.
At the core of who they are by their declared belief that Goes does not exist, atheists must inevitably think that those of us who believe in a spiritual dimension and who avow prayer as a means of communicating with the divine are hopelessly deluded. Likewise, all theists, but most especially we as Orthodox Christians, have to recognize with sadness that atheists are blind and deaf to the spiritual reality of God’s presence, of which we are intimately and experientially aware, for God is “everywhere present and filling all things”.
Thanks be to God that His design for all people to come unto Him and to know Him by His love – the will of the Father through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, communicated to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit – can and does illumine the hardest of hearts. As much as many of the recent sacrilegious public acts by those promoting militant atheism and other radical ideologies horrify us as Orthodox believers, we must remember that no theist can become an atheist without first losing trust in those whom they have seen speaking for or acting on behalf of God. We should be moved out of genuine love for their souls to pray for atheists – many of whom are kindhearted and fundamentally decent people – but we must always strive to answer the hatred of militant atheists with love, with silence when we are mocked, and kindness when we are scorned.
“Oh how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee; which thou hast wrought for them that trust in thee. . .” – Psalm 30:19 (LXX)
It is often the seemingly simplest things in life which give us the greatest joy, from the happiness of an unexpected call or e-mail, to an impromptu dinner surrounded by the warmth and laughter of great friends. Yesterday was filled with both these simple joys for me. I’ve resumed my correspondence with one of my mentors, the world-traveling futurist and educator Gary Marx, and in the evening I attended a fascinating conference planning session and wonderful dinner with a group of Orthodox friends.
Metropolitan Jonah invited a group of Orthodox friends to his house here in Washington. As a university student, I was the youngest person present. It was a great joy to be with so many dear friends (and several new acquaintances, including an Anglican priest and a newly-arrived Orthodox monk) brainstorming about panel and lecture topics, reaching out to would-be sponsors and affiliate organizations, and discussing media outreach strategies. We are in the infancy of planning a series of pan-Christian conferences focused on the overarching themes of secularism and the place of faith in public life.
Vladyka is a wonderfully kind host! Following several hours of enthusiastic discussion, and tea served by Vladyka, we moved to the dining room for a delicious Lenten dinner which he had prepared for us. My godmother has told me many times, and I discovered for myself that he is a very gifted cook! It was very touching to gather together in his home enjoying this lovely dinner which he had made for all of us. The main course was a savory vegetable stew with squid (an Athonite recipe, he told us) along with plenty of pasta, bread, fresh tomatoes and cut lemon.
For dessert we enjoyed blackberry turnovers and cherry pie with soy ice cream, and I was delighted to see that my godmother (who is not of Jewish heritage) brought hamentaschen! These triangularly folded fruit pastries baked with poppy seeds are a delicious Ashkenazic Jewish tradition. Most often eaten during the Purim festivities, the time when Jews commemorate the Hebrews’ deliverance from destruction through the courage of Queen Esther, they remain popular year-round with Jews and non-Jews alike. It was a delight to eat these Jewish pastries during our Orthodox Lenten dinner, as I recalled my introduction to them during my Long Island childhood.
The food was delicious, but it is the warmth of the conversation, the easy and frequent laughter (Vladyka and the visiting Anglican priest are both wonderful storytellers) which I will most remember. It was a great blessing to spend the evening with such wonderful church friends. The dinner was yet another reminder of how profoundly blessed I am to have such a kind and thoughtful man as my spiritual father and bishop.
To those of us who are blessed to see him regularly, Metropolitan Jonah is a shining example of Christian love actualized through thoughtful actions, a warm nature and a heart filled with a deep awareness of God’s presence and an abiding love for serving others. Unassuming, down-to-earth, and warm-hearted to the core, he is a blessing to talk with and a joy to learn from in his brilliant Bible study talks and incisive and pastoral sermons. I feel very blessed that I have come to know him over these past several years, and that I have the opportunity to continue learning from him. To all those whose lives he touches, he is a great blessing.