+Archpriest Anastasy (Stacey) Richter

Fr. Stacey (as he was affectionately called) was a proud Manitoban, and his journey to Orthodoxy and the Priesthood was woven into various Orthodox Churches throughout Winnipeg, especially at St. George’s Romanian Orthodox Church where he was received into Orthodoxy, St. Andrew’s Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, where he studied, and  our own St. Nicholas where he was ordained to the Priesthood on Aug. 4th 2001.  Fr. Stacey would go on to serve in Edmonton AB and Moose Jaw SK, before moving to the United States with his young family. 

Unfortunately I never got to know Fr. Stacey the way that many many people across this city, province, and continent did, being “late to the game” so to speak. I certainly knew about his energetic demeanor and  overwhelming enthusiasm for the Gospel, but never got to experience it first hand. There is something quite fitting that the first time I was able to meet him formally was where he began his life of service to the Body of Christ as a Priest, at St. Nicholas, while his family were visiting Winnipeg. Later on that week both Fr. Stacey and myself were able to steal away and grab a coffee. We talked about everything from family, to Church politics; but all our conversation would inevitably come back to the providential love of God for our families, our Church and the whole of the world. “It has to be about the Gospel and nothing else”  was a constant phrase he would say, regardless if it was about a difficult situation he was in, or about the blessings he had received. 

Those words that I’m sure many people across the continent have heard from him, have echoed in my head and heart ever since that day we had coffee. 

As we now know, this past Sunday morning Fr. Stacey Richter, collapsed in the altar during the Liturgy at the parish of St. Elizabeth where he was the rector. He was rushed to the hospital, and although he was in good health, was pronounced dead a short time later. I am not one who is superstitious, or one who sees omens in everything, but as I served Proskomide before the Liturgy (the preparation of the bread and wine), and made my way through my list of commemorations, his name (and that of his family) seemed to jump off page as I read them. I paused for a moment and remembered his words “it has to be about the Gospel and nothing else” and said “thank you God”, then kept on going thinking nothing of it, until after I heard the news of his repose. 

We remember many of the Saints of our Church because of the “big things” they did whether it was stopping invading enemies, performing miraculous healings, or mortifying their flesh through prayer and fasting. But all those “big things” are in many ways like the tip of  an Iceberg; what is seen might be a pristine chunk of ice floating in the ocean, but what is not seen is deceptively profound and massive. For every Saint, those “big things” of miracles were always built on the “little things” of grace and mercy and a life lived in the Gospel; unseen by the world, beneath the waves of life. I say this, because as I was considering all that had happened while I was serving Proskomide, and our blessed  conversation over coffee, there was the realization  that the only way to truly be a priest, a husband, a father, a friend, and  even a Christian, is to live out the “little things” of grace and mercy; and it is only  “Gospel and nothing else” that can do this. In the same way that the Saints throughout the ages manifested this, our beloved Fr. Stacey did; even to the end, while serving at the Altar of our Lord.

My heart goes out to Matushka Trudi and their daughters Anika, Sarah, Michal, and  to the community of St. Elizabeth, as well as the many people who were blessed to know Fr. Stacey better than I did. May the Lord grant consultation and peace to them all, and grant the Archpriest Anastasy the Kingdom of Heaven! 

May His memory be eternal!  

A Beautiful ending to a sad story.

A group of worshipers join the Peters family as they pray over Sophia’s casket at the Sts. Peter and  Paul Church, St. Paul Island, Alaska, in July. (Courtesy of St. Paul Island Productions)

 As we continue to reconcile our country’s tragic legacy with our indigenous peoples and the specter of Residential schools, we should always remember that the same fate that many indigenous children suffered here in Canada, was also shared by the indigenous people of the United States,  and Alaska (whose people were Orthodox Christians since the late 1700’s).  

Sophia Tetoff, was a 12-year-old girl. Orphaned in 1896, she was taken from the people and home she knew on St. Paul Island, Alaska, to live eventually, at the Carlisle boarding school (the American version of Residential schools)  in Pennsylvania, where she died of TB in 1906.  A time consuming process of locating and returning Sophia to her home was undertaken by Andrew and Lauren Peters (distant relatives) where she was greeted by the whole of the community of St Paul’s Island.

Her funeral was one she would have understood; sung in her own language, with traditional melodies, and with customs she would have known. There is much we can learn from the work to honour Sophia, as we strive to understand and deal with the tragic legacy of Residential schools in Canada.

Oh that we might bestow such dignity and respect for those who had any dignity and respect taken away from them! Indeed “every child matters”. Truly may we strive to honour the lives of the thousands of children who perished at Residential schools across North America, like Sophia Tetoff, and commit them to the mercy and love of our Lord, and the Kingdom of Heaven. 

A beautiful piece that documented this journey can be viewed at https://www.ucdavis.edu/curiosity/news/uc-davis-family-rematriates-their-ancestor-alaska-native-school

Our God is a consuming fire ( a reflection on the Holy Prophet Elijah and St. Maria Skobtsova)

On July 20th we celebrate the feast of two remarkable Saints in our Church, the Holy Prophet Elijah and Saint Maria Skobtsova, of Paris. On paper both saints seem very very different. One was a Old Testament prophet who served thousands of years ago, and the other a Russian emigre in Paris in the living memory of many people. But for as many differences that exist between these two saints, the element of fire is one that connects them arm in arm in their witness of a loving and merciful God. 

We all understand the benefits of fire. How it can transform and purify, it can warm, and even renew; yet it also can destroy and devastate. For this reason we teach our children about it and its proper uses. The same could be applied to our lives as Christians, for this fire is truly creative and merciful love of God, a love that seeks to transform, purify, warm and renew our nature grown old by sin. We have been baptized not just with water, but by the Holy Spirit and as the Evangelist notes “fire” (Mt. 3:11); it is the tongues of fire that not only came upon the Apostles on the feast of Pentecost, but upon all of us in the anointing of Chrism and the “Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”. It is by fire that we are saved (1 Cor. 3:15). For the Lord has come  “to send fire on the earth” (Lk. 12:49). Indeed it is a fire that transforms us from being raw and without strength, to being mature and strong, purifying us like the purest silver. It is  fire that warms our cold hearts. It is a fire that consumes that which is of no use to our salvation. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and Godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29)

It was this divine fire that both St. Elijah and Maria bore witness to in their lives. It was by fire that the Lord God revealed Himself to Israel and the priests of Baal, when the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the sacrifice of Elijah on Mount Carmel, and it was by fire that St. Maria’s heart  was illuminated, causing her to abandon her bohemian and radical atheism. It was by fire that Israel was delivered from the wrath of God, and by fire that St. Maria delivered Jewish children to safety from the clutches of the Nazis.  It was by fire that Elijah manifested the mercy of God in the rains that delivered Israel from drought.  It was by fire that St. Maria, manifested the Love of God in her care of the homeless and alcoholics in Paris. It was by fire that Elijah was taken up to heaven on a chariot, and by fire that  St. Maria entered the Kingdom of heaven through the gas chambers at the  Ravensbruck concentration camp.  
These Saints understood this fire as love, and bathed in it like the Three Holy Youths. A fire that would consume and destroy that which was not founded in the Lord, but  transform and purify, warm and renew that which was offered to the Lord.

Our challenge is to also understand this fire that we are offered and confirmed in as being truly the Love of God and nothing else; for it is the very content of our faith. Or as St. Maria said “It is all crystal-clear to me. Either Christianity is fire, or else it doesn’t exist.

The Gospel, All Saints of North America, and Residential Schools.

This past weekend we continued to bask in the glory and light of Pentecost beholding the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and all humanity. It is in this “light and glory” that we see the abiding presence of the “Comforter and Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere and fills all things” in those holy men and women, who bore the fruit of the Holy Spirit, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such there is no law”(Gal 5:22-23); the Saints.

To understand the importance of Pentecost, is to understand and give thanksgiving for the Saints. For this reason, the two Sundays following Pentecost are focused on the Saints; first in general (with All Saints) , and then more specifically, in specific (All Saints of Russia, Ukraine, Mount Athos, and in our case, North America). Those men and women, known and unknown who have borne the fruit of the Holy Spirit here on our continent, in our country, province, and even our Church.

Yet our remembrance of these blessed Saints who served us here, is done under the shadow of this county’s tragic and racist history towards the Indignious and Metis peoples. The media’s revelation of a long known understanding that more than 6000 children never returned from the Residential Schools they were forcibly taken to, has reached the tipping point challenging the notion of our Canadian identity, and even the validity of our Christian witness. Even if some involved were unaware of the evil effects of forced assimilation, or the generational trauma and harm done by these schools, the effect is the same. All churches are lumped together as evil.

To be sure, the perception that all “churches” are the same (and evil), and as such are responsible for residential schools in Canada is wrong. This crisis directly affects the Roman Catholic Church (predominantly) and to a lesser degree, the Anglican United, Presbyterian Churches of Canada, who worked in partnership with the government to “get rid of the Indian problem”(Duncan Campbell Scott, a leading architect in the Residential school program).

Yet we see the witness of the Saints, and especially those who laboured in North America whom we commemorate, standing in stark contrast to the goals of the Residential School program: run by churches, that polluted the pristine Gospel message of hope and victory, with the poison of western enlightenment and racial superiority.

Truly the Saints throughout all the ages, have changed the world because of the imperative to “Go, stand in the temple (or wherever country, or city or village throughout the world) and speak to the people all the words of this life”(Act. 5:20) and only that Life; He who is the “Way the Truth and the Life” (Jn. 14:6) Jesus Christ!

One only has to look at the enduring witness of Orthodoxy among Alaska’s Indigenous peoples to see this striking contrast. From the very beginning Orthodox missionaries in Alaska sought to witness the Gospel in the language of the people, and like a new Cyrill and Methodius, Saints like Innocent and Jacob and others, not only learnt the local dialects and languages, but created an alphabet and a written language for the Indigenous peoples they served. They translated parts of scripture, and services. They baptized the Indigenous understanding of the Cosmos, revealing the work of Father Son and Holy Spirit in them. So much so, that trying to delineate between pre-Christian and post Christian understanding of the Creation, redemption, and life is almost impossible for modern ethnographers.

It was the proclamation by these Missionary Saints in Alaska, of the Gospel and only the Gospel, that cultivated a vibrant Christian culture, that was more Aleut, or Tlingit, than it was Russian (even 150 years ago). It should be said that those same Saints also cultivated a vibrant Christian Culture that has become for many of us in the last 50 years more English, or French or Spanish than it is Russian, Ukranian, Romanian or Greek.

But we are not in Alaska, we are here, and there is terrible pain and suffering that compels us to act with the same kind of fervor as it compelled the Saints of this continent to act.

And this is the point.

Whereas we might not be directly responsible for the forced assimilation of the Ingignious and Metis peoples of Canada, and the misguided application of a flawed and polluted gospel; we nonetheless can not claim total innocence because we have not borne witness to the Gospel that baptized nations and cultures of Indigious peoples. Despite having a presence in Canada for over 100 years, there is no Orthodox Church that is more Anishinaabe, or Cree, or Nakota, Metis, (or any other nation ) than it is English or French.

Those Saints who shone forth in these lands, now point the way for us, in their love for God and neighbour alike. We might not be able to fix the wrongs of the past (especially as they were not our mistakes); but we can recognize them as being wrong and sinful, that is missing the mark of Christ, as revealed in the Gospel.

We can’t offer apologies, and gestures of reconciliation, that are empty sentiments and baseless words; Rather we, like the Saints, should offer our repentance (that is turn back to God) and offer our prayers, fasting, and works, in supplication for ourselves and these peoples. Bringing it all to the Lord

We shouldn’t hang onto history and tradition, as something that is of more value than the lives of a people and their culture. Rather, we should heed the witness of the Saints who would go so far as to “hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, (and even one’s own nation and culture) yes, and his own life also” (Lk. 14:25) in following Christ, and serving Him.

We can never condone any violence and vandalism in this tragedy, but we can seek to heal and understand the profound pain that has caused such a reaction, greeting it with the humility and love of the Saints, who bore all things for Christ, as the Lord bore all things for us.

We can not expect anyone else to solve this crisis, nor can we ignore our Mission as Christians because of this tragedy. We (Orthodox Christians) like the Saints, have to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Changing not the culture and life of a people, rather opening their hearts to life.

Like the Saints, we have to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:13), even if it is hard for those around us to hear, even if it makes us look like fools. We have to speak of this tragedy, and we also have to speak of the only reconciliation that can happen between Indigenous peoples and everyone else; the reconciliation of our broken humanity with the Creator. That of God’s saving love, and only that love.

All Saints of North America, pray to God for us in the crisis of confusion and pain.

Treading water with the Samaritan women.

I was asked recently how I was doing in this third lockdown? My answer wasn’t as optimistic as I have been in the past. Normally I am a glass half full kind of guy, but as of late, that half full glass is looking kind of murky… in essence I am getting tired. 

Truthfully,  I thought I would get used to serving at Church with just a couple of people and  that it would become normal enough to keep me going, but  like treading water, and waiting to be rescued, one only becomes more tired rather than used to it.  Yet like treading water and waiting to be rescued, the alternative to stopping  is dreadful to consider. 

It is this dreadful alternative that keeps me and many others going. No amount of frustration, or even rebellion can solve our current Public health orders (let alone everything else), and bring us back to simpler days when we could all be together, not wear masks, or anything else; in fact it would make it even worse. We can look at all kinds of solutions, and alternatives, but in reality it is only the Lord who can bring about a resolution to whatever challenge life might give us; this pandemic included. 

It is in this all that the Lord meets us as he meets that Samaritan women. Indeed the Lord greets the Samaritan woman, in need and thirst, asking for her assistance; as she goes to get water herself. Yet it is also the Lord who offers her something more than just water, or  something practical. The Lord who is like us in every respect (including being weary and thirsty), offers us, like he does to her, something more,  something beyond understanding; hope. It is a hope of clarity and peace, of having our thirst for meaning and purpose in life quenched beyond something tangible and practical (like never having to go and get water, or be free from this pandemic).

In many respects we are like this Samaritan women. As she had to work in the  midday heat, we are asked to work in the heat of a pandemic and restrictions; As she was an outcast (a Samaritan) we to are outcasts not being able to gather together at Church as it is deemed “inessential”; as she was a sinner (having many husbands and more), we to are caught up in sin and its effects. Yet as the Lord quenched her thirst, not by giving her something that is finite and corruptible (like water she was seeking) but life itself, manifested by the Holy Spirit, the Lord quenches our thirst. Not by giving us ” miraculous water drawn forth from a barren stone, but a new vintage from the fount of incorruption, springing from the tomb of Christ.” (Ode 3 Paschal Canon). 

Although I, like many others, are tired and worn down by the effects of this pandemic and by life itself, the Lord stands with us and offers us something more than a vaccine can provide (although this is very important and encouraged) something more than politics  can offer (although this facilitates good order), something more precious than liberty and our freedom (although in this we can live out or proclamation of God’s saving love). 

He offers us the empty tomb; ultimately he offers us our empty tomb; as “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), and has come that  we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn. 10:10), stretching out His hands to us as we tread water, as He did for Peter sinking in the sea of doubt and fatigue (Mt. 14:30). 

May we have the eyes of faith like the blessed Photini, to desire not that which is perishable and tasteless like water or political solutions, or a fully vaccinated population. As I said, those are indeed important, but we will inevitably thirst again in whatever situation we find ourselves in. He offers us something sweeter than anything we could imagine; the “water springing up into everlasting life.” (Jn. 4:14). Glory to God.

Come receive the Light!

When I first came to St. Nicholas , I was intrigued by the thought of serving Pascha at sunrise. I had only ever known serving this beautiful service at midnight, but who was I to change a Galatian tradition that stretched over a hundred years. 

Yet after serving Pascha at sunrise for these last 9 years, I don’t think I could ever serve a midnight service (may the Lord bless). This Pascha drove home this for me.

This year, as the Royal doors opened, and the Paschal flame was being disturbed, the rising sun broke into the Church, blinding those few in attendance (not to mention, giving some spectacular effects for our streaming camera). Truly this manifested what this service bears witness to, that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5). To have a cosmic witness of our sorrow turning to joy, and the darkness of this world giving way to the “Light of this world” (Jn. 8:12), makes this tradition all the more amazing and profound. Almost as amazing and profound as the Risen Christ shining his victory upon us on His glorious Pascha! 

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! 

Alone with the Bridegroom (Holy Week and Pascha away from Church)

During the first three days of this Holy Week, we and many other Churches served those beloved and dear “Bridegroom Matins” as a meditation and clarification of what the Lord will be doing to heal our broken and mortal nature; by going to, and dying for His bride the Church, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” (Heb. 5:25-27). And in the middle of the Church arrayed in flowers is the Icon of of the Bridegroom (Ο Νυμφίος — Ho Nymphios —).

Truly, it is a very striking image that we are more likely to note as His “Extreme Humility” (a similar but different Icon), but it is certainly anything other than what we would consider an image of a Bridegroom; after all, most bridegrooms generally are well dressed and giddy (if not a little nervous). Yet this Icon speaks volumes to the length the Lord goes to be with His beloved, to be with us. We see in this Icon, the Lord’s movement to us is not about Himself, it is all about us. He humbles Himself so completely to demonstrate this; being bound like a criminal by our sins, crowned with thorns- by our vanity and pride, and arrayed in mockery with a cloak and reed- by our contempt, so that He might transform our broken and mortal nature by His self emptying love. 

Yet this understanding can be lost on us with everyday life, getting the family ready for Church, preparing for the feast and all. Indeed we can lose perspective on what we are preparing for, and who it is we are doing these things for; The Bridegroom, the Lord. For The Bridegroom comes to offer a ransom for our humanity- disciples and us seek to sell Him in betrayal. The Bridegroom comes and offers Himself in a feast- His disciples and us, argue about who is the greatest. The Bridegroom comes to serve- His disciples and us, we protest. The Bridegroom is betrayed- and His disciples and us, we flee. Indeed The Bridegroom comes and we are unprepared (Mt. 25: 1-13).

It is in this that we see maybe the most striking aspect of the Bridegroom Icon, that the Lord is alone in His sorrow, abused, shamed and abandoned; with only His humble and undying love left. 

This is something to consider in the light of the new Public Health Orders that have come into place in Manitoba (and across the country). We have spent our Lenten season in anticipation of the Lord’s Holy Pascha. We have prepared ourselves through fasting, prayer and acts of mercy for that glorious third day, like a bridegroom (and bride for that matter) preparing for a wedding, only to have this feast of feasts pulled out from underneath us like a carpet, even while it was so close. It  feels like we have been betrayed, we have been relegated, we have been protested against, and we have been abandoned. Indeed, we, like the Icon of The Bridegroom are truly alone, unable to participate in the Liturgical, cultural, and social life of the Church in a normal way. 

We have been stripped of those elements of grace and respect that we associate with our preparation for Pascha, and like the Lord have been humbled by circumstances beyond our control. The question is, what is left to offer the Lord when everything has been taken away? To answer this is to see the Icon of the Bridegroom for what it offers; love, and only love. There are no snappy suits (or bridal gowns), no services; no laurel wreaths or gilded crowns, no beautiful temple to be in; no cheering bridal party, no brothers and sisters in Christ to share our Pascal joy with; there is only love, witnessed in the most profound way.

It might seem that I am just promoting these Public Health Orders, or cowering to an antagonistic civil authority. Far from it! I don’t like these orders, although I am sympathetic to their goals (reduction of infection) yet any disobedience to either the civil authorities and Bishop would have drastic effects for myself and more importantly our community. Regardless of what I might think or feel about the whole situation, I know that the Lord is in this all. 

Maybe, just maybe, the Lord has permitted these restrictions as a way of helping us understand the mystery of God’s love for humanity as revealed in this Holy Week, and profoundly understand the miracle that is Pascha. That as St John Chrysostom proclaims  “Hades It took a body (broken and shamed one relegated as criminal), and met God face to face. It took earth (the finite and corruptible), and encountered Heaven (the infinite and everlasting). It took that which was seen (creation), and fell upon the unseen (the Creator).

Maybe, just maybe we have been stripped of those blessed elements of the Holy Week and Paschal services, to be like Him; alone with only our love to offer. 

Maybe, just maybe, this is what we need to do to realize that we are not alone in our sorrow, abused, shamed and abandoned by the world around us. Rather we have the Risen Christ with us, calling us by name, and offering His peace and life to us, which can not be taken away. 

These are difficult times, and our prayer is that we might see the Lord’s love through it all: and moreover respond to it with the proclamation that Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

“How can this be?” Reflection on the Annunciation by Dr. Daryl Schantz.

We have reached our second week of Great Lent. For many of us, this is a season which, while typically difficult, looks particularly more discouraging that usual. We have experienced an entire year in and out of quarantine and we had all hoped that by this time we would be back to our usual routines. It can feel pointless to practice the disciplines of Lent knowing that our Paschal celebrations will again be muted and lack the togetherness that we all hope for. 

In addition, we have all encountered our own failures; if not in the first hours of the fast, we have met them face to face in the first days of the fast. Maybe it is helpful that ,particularly early in our Lenten season this year, we are given the feast of the Annunciation. This feast which gives our fasting a particular focus, a hope which is much needed. 

The epistle reading for Annunciation does this particularly well by reminding us that our Saviour was, “made like his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest…For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”

We may find it discouraging to think about how our temptations bring failure; but Christ was tempted – without sin. We should rather be reminded how those of us who are parents are particularly able to sympathize with our children, understanding their struggles. This is how Christ stands with us in our trials. His participation in our struggles does not condemn us, but allows us to know that he stands with us, understanding what it is like to be hungry, tired, to feel unwell, and to experience the range of human emotion. 

As noted by St John Chrysostom, “He took on Him our flesh, only for Love to man,” and “now he is not ignorant of our sufferings; not only does He know them as God, but as man also He has known them, by trial wherewith He was tried; He suffered much, He knows how to sympathize. 

This is a message of great hope for us! 

Finally, I wanted to reflect briefly on the Gospel reading for Annunciation. We hear the Angel Gabriel’s report to Mary and her response, “How can this be?” This gospel reading follows immediately after Luke tells the story of the announcement to Zacharias of the conception of St. John the Forerunner. At first glance, his response is not that different, “how can I be sure of this?” However, we know that the response of Zacharias was considered to be reflective of doubt; and as a result, he was unable to speak until after his son was born. 

What is the difference between, Mary’s “how can this be” and Zacharias’ “how can I be sure of this”?

I suggest that the responses were different in that the response of the Mother of God reflects wonder “how can his be” where the response of Zacharias reflects a need for certainty, “how can I be sure of this?”. We live in an era where few things are valued over certainty, knowledge, and material facts. We may be tempted to think less of those who are gullible, who believe others and “get taken”; we prize certainty for ourselves and in ourselves; to have all of the information before we commit to anything. 

While certainty is important in some aspects of our lives, certainty is not what makes for good relationships. What makes for good relationships is trust. In some ways, this need for knowledge and certainty is just the sin of the Garden of Eden coming back around again. Adam and Eve had relationship with God and they traded it away for the fruit of the tree of knowledge. So we see that the Mother of God succeeds where Eve does not. She does not ask for certainty, but she responds in wonder to God’s invitation. 

Today, we are faced with the same challenge. Are we going to limit our relationship with God by looking for certainty? Looking for certainty that our fast is benefitting us? Looking for certainty in the darkness of the pandemic? 

Are we going to expect certainty in our relationships with others? Are we only going to give our time to people who seem to be responding in ways that we expect them to? Are we only going to give our resources to places and people where we can see results?

May we have the ability to respond with the wonder and trust exemplified to us by the Mother of God. In our relationships, in our giving and in our following Christ. And like her, may we come face to face with Christ.

Other people, Icons and the Incarnation.

The Nave of St. Nicholas Metropolian Cathedral (OCA) Washington D.C

.In Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” three characters find themselves in a kind of Hell. Not the kind of Hell with fire and torment, rather just a room with only other people. They all realize that this is somehow a punishment for their sins, although they claim that it is an injustice they are they, or that a mistake was made. Yet as the play progresses, they grumble and  incite each other as to the real reasons they placed in this circumstance, and in time the real reasons for their predicament comes to light; cowardliness, adultery, murder and there disastrous effects. Through it all they think they are locked in that room, and when one of the characters goes to open the door, he can not compel himself to leave without reconciling and accepting his actions, and the actions of the other characters . Sadly none of the characters are able to leave because they are unwilling to reconcile themselves or the other. What is tragically realized is that Hell is not torture devices or physical punishment, rather  as one of the protagonists states “hell is other people”.

“Hell is other people” might be one of Sartre’s most famous quotes, and certainly speaks to the struggle to reconcile oneself with one’s actions, all the while dealing with other people going through the same kinds of crises. Indeed we don’t have to be an French existentialist philosopher to recognize this to one degree or another. Yet we as Orthodox Christians have been given the opportunity to recognize that equally “Heaven is other people”. 

This is something to consider in celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy, where we proclaim the veneration icons being more than a triumph of beautifully decorated Churches. For the triumph of Orthodoxy is none other than the triumph of the proclamation of the Incarnation – God with us (Mt. 1:23). The depiction of our Lord in painted Icons, mosaics, manuscripts, and tapestries bear witness that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14), and that in taking on our broken and mortal nature he has “broken down the middle wall of separation… so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,” (Eph. 2:14-15). The great defender of Icons, St. John of Damascus states this so profoundly when he states “what is not assumed (that is our broken and mortal nature) can not be healed”.

 Indeed the Incarnation – That we will celebrate this coming week- is, as its principle hymn proclaims “the beginning of our salvation”. It is this event that makes way for our transformation and ultimately transfiguration. From being mortal and finite beings, limited by necessity, to being immortal and infinite in Christ. Truly that the salvation and victory of the Lord shared with us by the Holy Spirit. In the same way that we depict the Lord in Icons as a witness to his Incarnation, we also depict  the saints. Those men and women who throughout the ages have shown us by the grace of the Holy Spirit, what a life in Christ is like. The Icons of the saints, like the Icons of the Lord, are the manifestation of “God with us”.

We indeed are called to be saints, and called to reconcile our broken lives throughout this fast our vocation as being created for holiness and sanctity. Though our fasting, prayers and charity, we are called to remove the filters of pride, anxiety, lust and greed, that obscure the Lord saving presence in our lives, and profoundly obscure the image of God that “other people” are created in. We should be doing this every day of our life, but we are given this season of fasting to consider “other people”. 

Are we complaining about the injustices of life (of which they are many) or are we praying for the strength to endure our daily hardships whatever they might be? Are we pleading that there has been a mistake in the circumstance that we find ourselves in (of which we might be victims of), or are we striving to see Christ’s saving providence in them? Are we blaming those around us (of which we can do so legitimately), or are we accepting our responsibility for our broken lives? are we unwilling to reconcile our sins (however great or small) or are we willing to accept them and offer them to the Lord? 

Indeed “Hell is other people” if we are unwilling to accept the Incarnation of our Lord and God and saviour Jesus Christ, manifested in Icons of Him; and it is Hell, if we are unable to accept that a transformed and transfigured life and Christ offers in the Icons of the Saints. Tragically  “Hell is other people” both here and now, and profoundly in eternity, if we are unwilling to reconcile ourselves to the God and neighbour alike. The wonder is, if we are willing to reconciling ourselves  to God and neighbour alike, we see not only is “Heaven other people” but we are able to behold that “Great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) that surrounds us, singing the hymn of the Lord’s victory; and the blessing to be able to leave that “Hell” through the door that Sartre’s tragic characters could not, seeing  “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” 

May the Lord strengthen us in this season of fasting to see such wonders. The Kingdom of revealed in “other people” both those in the Icons, and those called to be in Icons.

Preparing the Family for Great Lent (Matushka Iryna Galadza)

Last Sunday, the soft and somber sound of The Rivers of Babylon hinted at the approaching season of repentance. The familiar Sundays of the Publican and the Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment prepare us for the spiritual journey of the Great Fast, a journey facilitated by liturgical services, spiritual reading, Lenten missions, fasting and prayer. This season of great challenges (when embraced with joy) brings great spiritual rewards. What about our children? How do they fit into the demanding spiritual disciplines of this holy season? What can parents do to help their children – even the littlest ones – experience the period of the Great Fast on a deeper level, a level that goes beyond the usual decorating of Easter eggs (pysanky) and preparing a new outfit for Easter Sunday? How do we root our children in the joyous discipline of this Great Fast so that it becomes for them an absolutely essential part of the rhythm of their life? We must speak to them about the mystery of their faith – about Christ’s death and resurrection, about repentance and new life – in the language they know best, the language of the senses. 

We might begin with a visual message. The Great Fast is a time for change. In church, the color of altar vestments changes from bright to dark and festive embroideries are put away. At home, the icon corner is tidied and pussy willows (loza) from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. The Prayer of St. Ephraim is taped to the wall near the icons and pictures of deceased members of the family to be remembered in prayer might be placed near the icon corner. Embroideries are taken down, washed, starched and put away, ready to bring out for Pascha. Decorated eggs, so often left out on display year-round, are also placed out of sight. Covering the television with a cloth might be a reminder of the family’s commitment to fast from this visual distraction. The house is tidied – somewhat bare- inviting its inhabitants to change their routine, to replace television with books or conversation and to be more diligent in their prayer. The absence of familiar decorations in the home – the “emptiness” – is a constant reminder that this is a time of year that is set apart for the very special purpose of refocusing our life on Christ, who fills the emptiness in us.

 A visual “toning down” needs to be accompanied by an auditory one. The sound of blearing radios, televisions and noisy computer games assault the ears, disrupt interior peace and affect the behavior of adults and children alike. Older children need guidance in choosing appropriate music for listening. The family might agree to observe periods of “quiet time” on certain days. Perhaps, supper could begin by reading aloud from the Lives of the Saints or stories from the Bible. Take care to choose literary versions that are appropriate for the age of your children or simply tell the stories in your own words and discuss the pearls of wisdom hidden in them. Children need to experience the haunting sounds of Lenten hymns. Bring them to church for the extraordinary liturgical services of Lent (tempering frequency of attendance with the age of your child) and give them the opportunity to fall in love with such ancient melodies as “Let my prayer arise like incense before you…” so that as adults they might thirst for these and await the Great Fast with great anticipation.  

 It is often a fragrance that evokes for adults a memory of childhood. The fragrances that surround activities during the Great Fast are many: incense during prayer in church and at home, lilies at the services of holy week, paska baking in the oven, fresh spring air that flows through the open windows as the home is being cleaned for the feast, pungent egg dyes and melting beeswax. Involve the children in all of these activities, so that their little noses might be close to the fragrances that will bond them for life to the rituals that heighten the anticipation of Pascha. Do not protect them from getting their hands sticky with dough or stained with dyes, for they need to touch and experience all that this holy season has to offer.   

 One of the most challenging aspects of the Great Fast is the fasting. If adults have difficulty adjusting to simpler meals and different tastes, what can we expect from children? Most important here is the attitude of the parents toward their own fasting. If seen as a burden, all of the benefits of this spiritual exercise are lost. Fasting is a challenge, but it need not be a burden. It must never be presented strictly as a duty to suddenly be assumed at the magic age of 12. Fasting is a privilege, to be practiced out of love, increasing the measure of sacrifice in appropriate degrees throughout childhood and beyond. When approached with a positive attitude, fasting presents an invaluable opportunity to train children in the virtue of self-control. Plant the seeds of humility, by teaching children not to boast of their fasting nor be critical of those who do not observe the fast. Teach them to offer and receive hospitality graciously, without drawing attention to their fasting. Be reasonable when setting dietary expectations, taking into account the nutritional demands of growing bodies and the health and maturity of the children. For little children, the absence of sweet treats from their diets is a big sacrifice. While drawing children closer to keeping the prescribed fast, take great care to set goals that are achievable, thus encouraging acceptance of greater challenges. Once children have experienced sacrifice, they come closer to appreciating Christ’s sacrifice for us  

The challenges of the Great Fast can only be met with the grace that accompanies prayer and reception of the Holy Communion. Memorize the Prayer of St. Ephraim and pray it with your children daily, making the accompanying prostrations (poklony). Feed them with the Body and Blood of Christ so that they may “taste and see how good the Lord is” who suffered for the sake of giving us new life. Teach little children to ask for forgiveness of those they have hurt and offer it graciously to those who seek it from them. Great Lent is a most appropriate time to prepare children for their First Confession and review with older ones the process of examining their conscience in preparation for their Easter Confession, which they will approach with confidence when presented with the good example of their parents.   

The more effort invested teaching our children to live the Great Fast in a holistic way, involving all the senses and faculties God has given them, the more rooted they will be in their faith. When the Great Fast no longer seems “long enough” – when you anticipate it with gladness and it becomes an indispensable part of the rhythm of your life – you will know that your efforts have been blessed. Then, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection will be accompanied with indescribable joy!   

Matushka Iryna Galadza, St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church, Brapmton ON.