June 30, 2019
In honor of the 5th Anniversary of the Repose of Fr. Herman Podmoshensky
What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem? The famous quip from the first century critic Tertullian was meant to dismiss any possibility of cross-pollination between these two ancient cities and cultures. On the one hand, Jerusalem, city of the Savior and of the chosen people who gave Him birth stands as a symbol of separation from the world and all its lusts. On the other, Athens, city of the gods beyond numbering and of philosophies beyond counting, stands as a paramount symbol of this world and its festival of vanity. Such was the diametric opposition that these two cities represented.
I felt a similar separation between America and Russia the first time it was presented to me by one of my spiritual fathers whose repose we remember this day. In hearing of Holy Russia, Third Rome, and the Holy Elders in a 19th century monastery called Optina, I could only respond, “What hath Madison Avenue to do with this new Jerusalem?”
I confess to this day it remains a mystery to me how a small town hick like myself could end up learning about such things. But there I was over 20 years ago at the feet of a priest-monk named Herman representing all the riches of what he called a golden chain of sanctity reaching back through the Optina Elders of the 19th century, St. Paisius Velichkovsky of the 18th century, and many others all the way back to the Apostles themselves. Tracing one’s spiritual lineage was not new to me as every Protestant group I was raised in all claimed some kind of spiritual connection to Christ and His Apostles. But this was the first time I witnessed a spiritual father tracing his lineage both spiritually and historically. Fr. Herman called it transmissional fidelity, and he was careful to say that it was not exclusive; i.e., many other spiritual centers of the Church besides Optina have transmitted the Gospel kerygma over the centuries, “…But this is the one that I have received and I am going to attempt to deliver it to you both in content and the exact way in which I received it.” [cf. 2 Timothy 2:2] And what was this way of the Optina Elders?
One thing for certain is that this way involves a maximum amount of Divine Services. I remember this from the last time I visited the monastery almost a decade ago. It was not a question of whether or not to attend a service, but which service to attend, for many times there were multiple services held at different times in different chapels. My oldest girls confirmed this two summers ago when they attended a camp there, and we are going this evening all together as a family to the same camp sponsored by the monastery.
But beyond what may be called formal prayer, Professor Ivan Kontzevich, who is responsible for passing on Optina spiritual life to Fr. Herman, describes exactly how I feel in a monastery like Optina:
It is an early summer morning. You are walking to church. There is a fresh breeze. Around you is the wonderful murmur of the deep forest, whose fragrance hovers all over. And in front of you, against the forest, is the grandeur of the white citadel. There is Optina. At the same time, you are experiencing a genuine sense of God’s presence, and from this comes fear for each thought, each action, each feeling, together with an intangible peace in your soul, and joy, which so wondrously harmonizes with the external surroundings.
This quiet peacefulness that engenders prayer from the heart is called hesychasm. One only needs to experience a small portion of it to want to know more. And those who experience this closeness to God stop worrying about national origins and ethnic pedigrees. For the Savior of the world hath joined in Himself old and new Jerusalem, making the two groups [Jew and Gentile] one and destroying the middle wall of hostility between them.
Thank you Fr. Herman for introducing us Americans to this this spiritual center and to Orthodox monastic life. May your memory and the memory of this blessed place be eternal.