YOUR ORTHODOX MISSION TO AMERICAHome > Spirituality > YOUR ORTHODOX MISSION TO AMERICA
Word Magazine October 1957 Page 207-208/212
YOUR ORTHODOX MISSION TO AMERICA
By Rev. Daniel H. B. Montgomery
Let’s Set Them Straight
American Orthodoxy is coming of age. From that hardy little band of ten Russian monks who landed on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in 1794, it has increased by leaps and bounds until today it numbers around 3,000,000 souls in the United States, Canada, Alaska, and Mexico. Today Orthodox Catholics are to be found on every continent on the globe. Three-barred crosses rise over the busy metropolises of New York, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City, from the bleak Aleutian Islands to the steaming Chaco region of Paraguay. Already 212,000,000 strong the Orthodox Catholic Church is increasing more rapidly than any religious faith in the world.
Yet strangely enough, most of our neighbors in the New World do not really know us. They often look upon us as a sort of curiosity. And in a way we can not really blame them, for we have not done nearly enough to show them what we believe in and why we do things the way we do. During the past fifty years Orthodoxy temporarily abandoned her original reason for coming to the New World, to convert America to the true faith. Rather, Orthodoxy turned her attention to consolidating the waves of immigrants who already were Orthodox. In 1872, the Archbishop left the Alaskan mission field for San Francisco, and finally, in 1905, moved to New York.
Of course, these changes were necessary. The Church could not abandon her own people simply because they had moved to a new country. The Archbishop had to establish his See close to the majority of his flock, not the minority. Nor was the Alaskan mission field abandoned entirely. A bishop was left there to govern the thriving Church which consisted of 9/10 converts. But the basic emphasis of American Orthodoxy shifted from missions to consolidation. Only recently has the missionary spirit begun to awaken once more as American Orthodox people begin to realize that their first duty is not to preserve the faith (important as that is) , but to “preach the Gospel to every creature” as the Head of the Church commanded.
Even in her new conditions, the American Church did not forget her missionary duty. But this time she turned her attention to those Slavic peoples whose ancestors had been forced into Roman Catholic Unias in Poland and Austro-Hungary. Here the gains of Orthodoxy were little short of sensational. Literally hundreds of thousands of former Uniats have left Rome for the faith of their fathers. Often this step caused them great personal sacrifices, for Rome used every possible means to keep them in line. In Europe, on All Saints Day in 1912, Metropolitan Arsenius, the valiant Father Sandovich and six other Orthodox priests were executed by a firing squad in the public square at Lvov (Lemburg). Their crime: they refused to submit to the Roman Catholic Unia. In America, there were no firing squads: but plenty of financial and legal pressure was employed by Rome to force the Slavic Americans to behave themselves. But they did not behave themselves, and continued to pour out of Rome and into Orthodoxy. We easily forget that today in America the majority of those who call themselves Russian Orthodox and nearly all the Ukrainian and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox are either converts or children of converts to Orthodoxy from the Roman Catholic Unia.
Since 1900, more than a half million American Uniats of Slavic descent have turned Orthodox. In Europe, the Vatican reluctantly admits the loss of 6,198,551 of its former followers to Orthodoxy that is to say, the entire Uniat Church on the Continent! All that is left of the
once-powerful Unia are a few bishops and priests who pose for photographers in Rome, two dioceses in America (one in Philadelphia and one in Pittsburgh), and some bewildered followers who still think that they are Orthodox and not Roman Catholic. This tremendous expansion of Orthodoxy at the expense of Rome has received nowhere near the attention it deserves. Every Orthodox Catholic should know about it and be proud of what his parents had to go through in order that he might be a member of the Mother of all Churches, the Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, the living body of Jesus Christ.
Having done a splendid job in Alaska, another splendid job of consolidating Orthodox immigrants, and a sensational job of winning over former Uniats, American Orthodoxy is ready for the next round. A great deal more could still be done in Alaska, with the new waves of immigrants, and with the 500,000 Americans still claimed by the Unia. A great deal more could be done to strengthen the internal status of American Orthodoxy by more self-sacrifice for the sake of unity and less talk about “rights” which belong to us and shortcomings which belong to the other fellow. A little less criticism about how “they” meet their problems “over there” in the old countries, a little more confidence in them and in the Church they are struggling to defend, and a lot more searching criticisms of our own glaring shortcomings are as much in order today as ever. We are proud of our victories. But our victories have been trifling compared to the victories which they have won for the Church “over there,” and our trials have been as nothing when compared to the sea of flame which has enveloped them.
Our spiritual ties with the Old World are still life-giving arteries; to cut them would mean certain death. The center of Orthodoxy is still Jerusalem, not New York or Chicago.
Here in America we face the two-fold task of keeping Orthodoxy truly Catholic (“One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”) while extending her among the millions and millions of our fellow countrymen who are groping for religious truth. Don’t think that they wouldn’t jump to Orthodoxy if they had the chance. Plenty have done so already. But very few will do so if they are not convinced that American Orthodoxy is a living branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. If all they want is to hear Russian music, they can sit home and listen to the radio.
When St. Paul entered Athens back around the year 55 A.D., he found an altar there dedicated to the “unknown god.” He was very struck by that inscription. There was something pathetic about it. Athens was the university city of the world, and its citizens were proud of their knowledge of the arts, sciences, and philosophies. St. Luke remarks that they “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” They knew that God exists. In fact, they had condemned Socrates to death for “atheism,” although Socrates had always considered himself to be a very religious man. But how devout can one be before the “unknown god?”
When the Apostle had gathered an audience, he began to discuss this “unknown god,” but added: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Then he told them how God had begun to reveal Himself nearly 2,000 years previously first to one man, Abraham, then to more and more and always more and more clearly, culminating finally in His very Incarnation among the people He had prepared to receive Him, His taking of the sins of the world upon Himself, and finally the uniting of his creatures to Him in His living Body, the Church.* An extraordinary story!
St. Luke tells us how the audience reacted to this message. “Some,” he says, “mocked; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’… But some joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
How similar to the Athens of St. Paul is America of our day! Like Athens, America is steeped in knowledge of the philosophies and sciences, and is always ready to listen to “something new.” Like Athens, America is largely devoted to the “unknown god.” Her people are religious, but puzzled before the babble of so many contradictory voices. Our last census revealed that nearly one-half of the total population has no religious preference at all. The other half is divided among a multitude of competing sects. Even the sects are often groping and more or less apologetic. The editor of Life magazine said recently that if churchmen cannot tell us about God in no uncertain terms, then they should keep quiet. And indeed they should! No one wants to lose an hour on Sunday morning just to hear a minister or a priest tell him to be a good boy. If he cannot spend that hour with God, then he has wasted his time and missed a good game of golf for nothing.
Christianity and Little White Golf Balls
What St. Paul had to say to the Athenians and what the Church has to say to the world today is far more than an extra layer of morality. It is the most vital message we will ever hear in our lives. It tells us what He who put us here expects of us. More, it tells us what He has done and continues to do for us. And most important of all, the Church gives us the concrete means for uniting with God and fulfilling His purpose. It, and it alone, enables us to snort at those who tell us that we are nothing more than stepping stones on the road to super-man, doomed to be crushed into the mire by the march of progress. Our value is given to us by Him who made us and became one with us. It is eternal! It is absolute!
Because God became man for us, suffered the penalties of our crimes for us, rose from the dead for us, and poured out His Holy Spirit within us, making us one with Him right here on earth, because of all that, we, too, are absolute. No tyranny on earth and no cynical philosophy can budge us. Do you think that those people killing time on the golf links Sunday mornings would not like to hear that? Do you think that the whole world is not crying for what you have already? You bet your life it is! Give them the chance and the golfers will drop their clubs and come running.
We might ask, why are they playing golf at all? They play because they feel that they have to do something, to keep busy, to keep their minds occupied. By projecting themselves into the future behind a little white ball, they (and all of us) can avoid looking at the present. Once they get the ball into the hole, they will remove it quickly and shoot for another hole. If there is one thing on earth which no one can abide, it is the present moment. Why? Because the present moment is horrible. It makes our hair stand on end. The present tells us that we are lost and helpless, hanging by a hair over who-knows-what. No, we don’t like that. We don’t like reality. We prefer fantasies — dreams of the dead past or hopes for the non-existent future.
On the one hand, everyone knows that he must keep busy to keep from going crazy. On the other hand, everyone knows that he will never be really happy until he can stop and rest.
Let’s shoot another hole. Then we’ll have a drink. Then we’ll get in the car and go home. Then we’ll… Or we’ll read a book and keep moving from line to line. Or we’ll watch television. Or we’ll do a little work, or “distract ourselves” with a hobby or a drive into the country. At any cost, let’s do something or we’ll go crazy. Only at that last moment, at the hour of death, do we finally get trapped by reality. Then, at last, there is no future where we can hide ourselves.
Oh yes, they want to hear about Orthodoxy. The great Russian philosopher, S. L. Frank, used to say that the only difference between the believer and the non-believer is that the former has dared to look at reality. The believer stopped long enough in his tracks to face the sickening fact that he was hanging in mid-air. As soon as he realized also whose hand was holding him there. The non-believer is afraid to do that (and it is hard), so he keeps running and running into the future. At least his legs are moving, so they give him the comfortable feeling that he must be getting somewhere.
But he isn’t likely to stop running just to hear a lecture on ethics. Nor is he likely to stop to listen to a discussion of theology or comparative religions. Only one thing can stop him in his tracks, and that is your simple and straightforward attitude towards the holy Orthodox faith. The chances are pretty good that as he flies through life, running and running, he is longing to find just one person who will be standing still (Orthodox!), and who can say to him quietly, “This is it, brother. You can stop running away.
Of course he may mock, as they mocked St. Paul. Or he may say, “Tell me more.” Or he may even join you right there and then. But as you speak to this non-Orthodox friend of yours, just bear in mind that there is one enormous advantage on your side: he wants to believe you. Deep down in his heart, he knows that he would give anything to possess the solid fearless Orthodox Catholic faith of the Fathers.
The Great American Mission Field
When St. Paul and his companions landed in Greece, who could have predicted that the country would someday become a great citadel of Orthodoxy? When St. Vladimir was baptized, one barbarian among thousands, who could have predicted what treasures his people would soon produce? And today in America, who can set a limit to our horizon?
Most likely it would be wrong to dream that America will someday become a vast Orthodox nation. By now we should have learned that God obviously does not have that in mind: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” First he abolished the holy Greek Empire and then the holy Russian Empire. It seems pretty clear by now that that sort of thing is not what he wants. God, who created the entire universe with all its creatures visible and invisible is not particularly impressed by quantity. What interests Him is quality … A little leaven to leaven the whole lump. The true Church need not be large, but it must be true.
We know that our Church is the original Christian Church from which all others came, and we can demonstrate it without too much trouble. Any history book will do. In fact, this is so clear that our opponents generally do not bother even to argue the point with us. Instead they insert various stipulations and theories. The Protestant claims that the Church ceased to be visible and became instead invisible, so that no one could any longer find where it was. The Roman Catholic claims that divine authority was shifted mysteriously from the East and from the original people of God to the capital of the pagan Roman Empire, and that Almighty God found sunny Italy a nice place to settle down in until the end of the world.
To us it is more logical (not to speak of being more trusting in God) to suppose that what God began He completed. Having poured forth His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, He did not change His mind later, and, without telling anybody, withdraw from His Church in favor of some new one. The ancient Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils was the same Church of Pentecost, still guided by the same Holy Spirit, and is the same Church of today. For some reason known only to God, He chose to make you and me members of His divine Body. Why He selected us and not someone else is a complete mystery to us. But He did. We must carry the ball from there.
Not all of us are brilliant public speakers or magnetic organizers. Our personal mission to America may not be particularly spectacular. But our personal mission is vital all the same. We were chosen for the job even before our birth, before the creation of the world, St. Paul says. To the world about us, you and I are official ambassadors from the Church of Christ.
St. Simeon the New Theologian points out that just as a city needs doctors, lawyers, policemen, merchants, bus drivers, street cleaners, and everyone else if the city is to function properly, so does the Church need bishops, priests, singers, readers, sextons, monks, and thousands of varieties of laymen who all contribute to build up the one Body. Salt, said Jesus, is to give flavor, and “you are the salt of the earth.” The primary job for most of us is not to convert the world but to give it flavor, to be outposts of calm but certain faith in a world that is terrified half out of its wits.
The best way for us to do this is to keep loaded at all times with plenty of ammunition. Fortunately, the Church gives us simple ABC rules, and guarantees results if we follow them. For monks and nuns they are extremely rigorous. But for us of the laity, although these rules require from us a little effort, they certainly don’t break our backs. The most important of them are:
1) Attend Divine Liturgy every single Sunday and Feast Day without exception. This shouldn’t be too hard for anyone of the Orthodox faith. It is hard to imagine a service more beautiful than ours. The reason for regular attendance is that time Divine Liturgy is an incomparable source of strength. The Church teaches (and every devout Christian has confirmed the fact by his own experience) that at the Divine Liturgy the Lord, Himself, is present in a very special and dynamic way. And “if I but touch the hem of His garment I shall be healed.”
It is interesting to note that even persons who are not of our faith, such as the Roman Catholics, admit that this is so – that God is truly present at our Liturgy and truly changes the bread and wine into His very body and blood. The writer knows an atheist who wandered into an Orthodox church one day just out of curiosity. He did not understand a word of Russian. But when he came out of church two hours later he was a Christian. “Something was happening there,” he said. “It was something I had never seen or experienced before. There was a Presence there!’’ That man has devoted his life to God ever since.
2) Confess and receive Holy Communion at least four times a year, preferably during the four Fasting Seasons. This rule is the crown of the above, if attendance at Liturgy is “mystical” communion with God, Holy Communion, as the name implies, is actual and complete communion. Remember that of all the people of the world, only you as an Orthodox Catholic have the privilege of complete union with God for the asking. Make the most of it!
3) Keep the fasts. This rule may seem a bit silly. What good is fasting? The truth is the fasting offers a good many tangible and practical benefits. We boast that we are “rational animals.” But the sad reality is that most of us are hopelessly chained to our appetites and habits. When we fast, we wrench ourselves free from these chains and place “mind over matter.” As a result, communion with God becomes easier almost automatically.
When keeping a fast, there is one handy point to hold in mind. Except for the Saturday before Easter, all Saturdays and Sundays are breathing points. There is no fasting permitted on these days, or on any other Great Feast Day. Thus no fast is really as formidable as it looks. The trick is to adjust your own private life to the great pulse beat of the living Church. At certain times we all throw ourselves together into spiritual combat. At other times we all relax together. We are all living organs of one living Body. “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 COR. 12: 26). That is the golden key to Orthodox Christianity.
If an Orthodox Catholic can keep these three simple rules, he is well on the way to being a living witness to the Apostolic Faith in America. Orthodoxy, virtually alone among the religions of the world, is not morbid and somber. It is full of light, happiness, music, and color. Reginald Wright Kauffman, a pioneer American convert, once said that if Protestants and Roman Catholics behave in church like servants in the house of their Master, Orthodox Catholics are like children in the house of their loving Father. Orthodox worship, like Orthodox life, is relaxed an spontaneous. “God is love,” and is truly known only by those who love Him.
Yet at the same time, as many converts have pointed out, there is also in Orthodoxy a deep veneration for the Holy. God is indeed our loving Father; but He is also holy, and we are anything but. Before His Throne of glory, Orthodox Catholics prostate themselves, knowing full well that they are unworthy to be the adopted children of One such as Him. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” Were it not for his incomprehensible love for us, we would be no more than specks of dirt beneath His feet.
A remarkable synthesis: relaxed spontaneity … deep veneration. These two strains will be found to meet nowhere save in Orthodoxy.
We Orthodox have a great deal to sing about. It is no wonder that when we sing we raise the roof. But we must sing louder yet. Millions of scuffling feet pass our doors every day. They haven’t yet come in because they haven’t yet heard us singing. Our songs of joy, our iron-clad faith, must be made known to them. No one can say in advance what their reactions will be.
“Now when they heard …, some mocked; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ . . . But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
* (Note: This is the central Christian message which St. Paul used over and over again, particularly when speaking before Jews who had heard already about Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets. The reader is probably aware that on this particular occasion St. Paul used a somewhat different approach, employing philosophical terminology which he knew would be appreciated by his Athenian audience. See Acts 17: 16 ff.).