July 19, 2012

Mercy and Obedience

“Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13)

Today we remember Saint Seraphim of Sarov. This was always a special day for me growing up, because it was the feastday of the little wooden chapel in the village of Rawdon, Quebec where my brother and sisters and I spent much of the summer at my grandmother’s cottage.

One of the stories I most like about him is one I rarely hear recounted. Maybe it’s too unsettling. But it comes from the Chronicle of the Diveyevo community of nuns he founded. He took special care in developing this small group of nuns, but they were part of a larger and very traditional and strict Russian monastery (monastic life in general was pretty harsh in 18th c Russia).  A standard rule was no in-between meals, and of course everyone understood that obedience to the rules was fundamental to monastic life. Part of what distinguished Saint Seraphim’s little Diveyevo flock was his decidedly less strict approach. If a nun was feeling sad, for example, he counseled her to have a little extra bread, even keep some under her pillow if she had attacks of anxiety or despair at night. Now this was strictly against the rules and ancient monastic warnings about “secret eating.” One day, one of his nuns was feeling hungry and Saint Seraphim told her to go up to the monastery kitchen and ask the cook for a little something to eat. But the cook—a nun as well—berated her, reminded her of the rules and refused to give her anything. The nun was devastated and returned to Saint Seraphim. He listened to what she reported and then he went up to the kitchen himself to speak with the cook. This is the part of the story that is so striking. Meek and mild Saint Seraphim was angry at the cook’s hardness of heart and rebuked her in no uncertain terms. He told her she should have ignored obedience to the rules and instead and shown mercy to her sister. In doing so she could have comforted her sister and saved her own soul. “But now there will be no forgiveness for you in this life or in the world to come.” He then turned and walked out. The Chronicle reports that the cook was so devastated that she became ill and died a few weeks later.

Hierarchical Divine Liturgy in Miami

Abp Nikon tonsures readers

Just before the Divine Liturgy yesterday morning in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Miami, Archbishop Nikon tonsured as readers and ordained as subdeacons Pedro and José from the Spanish-language Holy Apostles Mission (being served by newly ordained Saint Vladimir’s graduate Father David Wooten.) A Spanish Bible was found for them to read during the tonsuring, but Pedro was handed an iPhone with Spanish text, and that may have been a first in the Orthodox world. The Assembly delegates spent the rest of the day in plenary sessions discussing diocesan business, finances and by-laws and after Vespers the Diocesan Council met again. But after Liturgy I took the day as an opportunity to catch up on Chancery work, scores of emails, make phone calls and communicate with Archbishop Nathaniel, Bishop Michael, Father Eric G Tosi and others. Also had the chance for some good conversations with priests to see how they and their parishes are doing in the wake of the recent upheaval.

South Diocesan Assembly
Assembly delegates in plenary sessions

In his words after the Gospel, Archbishop Nikon reminded us of the need to keep putting everything in the long-term perspective of the Kingdom. That’s what it means to be “in the world but not of the world.” When we say “Blessed is the Kingdom…”at the start of the Liturgy, as Father Alexander Schmemann said, we are saying that we are aiming in the direction of the Kingdom of God. We are asking for the light of the Kingdom to illumine our path through this world, whose present form, assumptions are all “passing away” (1 Cor 7:31).  That’s not a dark, world denying spirituality that frowns all the time. On the contrary, we can look up because the troubles of this life are temporary, and the greatest joys we have now are but a taste of what is to come.