Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Form and Content

Last week was the Midfeast of Pentecost (half-way between Pascha and Pentecost), and was also the first time for me to serve as an altar server in a Divine Liturgy. I've served a couple of Presanctified Liturgies during Lent in years past, and this year in seminary has me pretty comfortable with the basic movements of an altar server in most OCA parishes. It's rather (in?)famously known that SVS's matins service is rather shorter than what one might find in an OCA parish, but the mechanics of serving as an acolyte are pretty much the same, so the training does its job well.

Of course, the Divine Liturgy is the chief celebration within the lives of Orthodox Christians. In it, we offer up the labor of man's hands to the One who made the material we work with, and we receive it back, blessed and sanctified, as the food which lasts forever (something we could never do with our hands alone). This, then, is the beautiful, eternal content of our liturgical experience: we meet our Maker and are, by His grace, changed to become like He is. Having said that, it's rather obvious to anyone who's had to serve for any extended period of time in any capacity in a Divine Liturgy (whether as priest, deacon, sub-deacon, acolyte, reader, or choir member) that your service is something of a sacrifice; those "wedded to a text," as I've heard the Ochlophobist say, are not able to take it all in, but rather must focus on a certain, mechanical function within the liturgy as service to God and, in doing so, enable others to pray. Mechanics may, in a sense, take away the one sense needful to prayerful communion with God, but, "They also serve who only stand and wait," as Milton said.

Also relating to form and content is the overall comparison I've made all year between this M.Div. degree and my undergraduate B.A. in Education. It is the reality of things that, here in the States, a man looking to be ordained to the work of an Orthodox clergyman must have some formal theological training, just as a teacher must possess some formal knowledge of how to instruct pupils (though alternative certification obviously serves as the exception). Some of the classes I have attended here at SVS have been minimal in their reading load and demand on my time, though the discussions springing from them are imminently practical, and the interaction with my classmates has been invaluable, as they will think of things I never would have thought to ask about. Other classes have demanded hours upon hours of reading and writing, all on subjects, I am convinced, I will never need to reference in normal parish life (at least directly; sermon preparation or the random coffee hour question from a theology buff might require a passing reference to some of this). Some of my professors are men I hope I can emulate as a priest; I pray to God no one ever compares me to others. And there are some things--I couldn't tell you what at this point--which I am convinced that I will try upon coming into a parish to work which I will promptly jettison and never think about again. We have gone through christological terminology in Patristics ad nauseum, for example, but Fr. John told us after a particularly vexing class that we must not confuse this system of theological terminology with the Gospel; when Christ asks you, "Who do you say that I am, do not commence with a comparison of St. Cyril of Alexandria's ἐκ δύο φύσεων language with Chalcedon's ἐν δύο φύσεσιν definition. Yet, in spite of the abstract, stilted nature of some of this, there is an integrity and beauty in knowing that in the one Christ man can, indeed, find integration and wholeness and, in that completion, find peace. I've always been more of a big-picture person. These kinds of things need to be in their proper perspective. Or, as my New Testament professor said today, "would [that we] not waste time attacking or defending the wrong things, but that [we] would above all else seek to acquire the mind of Christ as [our] own."

All of this--from classes of wildly divergent natures to genuinely exciting topics of study to questionable assignments to things that seem outright useless--is exactly like my education undergrad. What this tells me is that I need not despair, because no priest worth his salt hangs his hat too heavily on his book-learnin' from seminary. I had to keep learning in the classroom, even to the point of teaching myself an entirely new methodology. And I did pretty well, if I do say so myself. What happens of value is what comes after all this. Oh, you need to know your field, of course, but you also need to know that the form that all of this takes--the classwork, the reading, the papers, the discussions, the work around campus--is not as important as the content of it all, which is a life of discipline and sacrifice for other people, borne out of the Gospel that is the root of all this.

Your continued prayers are appreciated.


s-p said...

May you come out of seminary a Christian. Hang in there.

David B said...


This first year has had its challenges, but I've been quite impressed with the (overall) desire to form leaders of the Church, as well as the quite Scriptural and christocentric push in terms of the theology here. No lie.

The community has been our saving grace, in spite of the fact that our apartment this year has been in a very isolated part of the seminary. Audra's participation in women's and spouses' group, along w/women's choir and our helping organize the weekly common meals has been what's made this year possible for her. The rhythm is strenuous, but there's grace here. Your orthograph on satisfaction has been spot on for most of us here; thankfully, we seem to be free to roll with the punches. Thank God.

Darlene said...

While attending a Wesleyan Bible College, I encountered various ideas, world views, teachings, etc. that deeply troubled me, which caused me to ask, where is Jesus in all of this?

I, too, have an Education Degree and my attitude was to eat the chicken and spit out the bones. Needless to say, because I attended a liberal university I was spitting out quite a bit. :)

David, did you at any point consider attending St. Tikhon's Seminary? I've heard that it is conservative, comparatively speaking. The recent matter of the Archbishop of Canterbury receiving an honorary degree at St. Vlad's disturbed me. I attend an OCA parish and I cannot defend Met. Jonah or St. Vlad's in what can be construed as scandalous behavior. It is in moments like these that I think of the many average Christians, both Orthodox and otherwise, that endured persecution under Communism and Naziism while many members of the hierarchy collaborated with the authorities against Christ and His Church.

Ah yes... I concur with the first commenter. May you leave seminary with your Christian faith in tact!

David B said...


The question "Where is Jesus in all of this?" could be applied to any aspect of life. To be sure, it is the question for Christians, so it needs to be asked always and everywhere, you're right. The answer should be, "Everywhere!" including seemingly-interminable rubrics books and seemingly-pointless classes.

I did consider St. Tikh's. Going to a more conservative seminary in a monastic setting was extremely attractive to me, I must say. Primarily our reasons for going to St. Vlad's were threefold:

1) it is accredited by the State of NY, whereas St. Tikh's is not recognized by PA (yet). That's not important to some folks, but as I'm looking to get into chaplaincy work at some point post-seminary (possibly, pretty much as a way to help supplement income), I need an accredited M.Div for that program.

2) St. Vlad's has married housing. St. Tikh's does not. The nearest housing in N.E. PA is half a mile away, and it is in a place where work is hard to come by to finance even that housing. At St. Vlad's, if something comes up while I'm at class (and it has), I can simply walk home to help my family.

3) St. Vlad's spouse's group seems to be much more well-established, and it was important to me that my wife have some recourse to community here, as well.

All in all, since I don't really get the idea of "honorary doctorates" in principle, I don't make too big a deal out of the ABC getting one from St. Vlad's. We're not communing him, we're not approaching him about union at all; we're just saying, in essence, "Hey, nice work on Dostoevsky and the Philokalia you did there!" If there's some problem with the work for which he's being honored, then I'd understand.

Now, would I have done it differently? Sure. Are there groups of former-anglicans who are disgusted by the actions? Sure. Is this just something which I roll my eyes at, confident that it's just an "attaboy" between academics that most, if not all, people in the nave will have forgotten about in a few month's time? Sure. I'm much more interested, at the moment, in what hopefully will be coming down the pike at the end of this month.

Additionally, Darlene, I have to take issue with your comparison of OCA parish members who have to deal with the news about the ABC with persecuted Christians under the Communist and Nazis. The two are in no way comparable.

I don't mean to offend; forgive me if I have.