||[Jul. 18th, 2008|03:48 pm]
spiritual renegades of the St. Herman Brotherhood
|||||birds outside in thunderstorm||]|
I have taken the time to read through the exchanges in this very amazing community and I must say I am profoundly moved. I really appreciate the 'let it all hang out' theme and I feel it is very cathartic to speak in these tones so far removed from the pious and or over-intellectual voices one gets on Orthodox forums and communities online. I know I have met many of your as monastics and or neophytes from Platina, St. Paisius and the Chico bookstore. Perhaps some of you remember me.
I was and am a St. Herman's child, but I was never a DTTW / YOTA person. I encountered the Valaam Society in the summer of 1988 in Chico and maintained loose but very friendly relations with the keepers, including Lenny (Fr. Leo), Fr. David Coleman and his wife, Platonida Barton (we were very close), Allison Engler (who was super lovely) and Mother Nectaria, who basically ran the VSA mission in Chico before Mother Sophia entered the picture and before Theophany Skete. Mother Nectaria became my Godmother and one of my best friends (we both live in Moscow now). I became Orthodox in 1991 after a year long catechumenate.
Why Orthodoxy? Unlike most people in this community, I was not raised Christian, even non-practicing Christian. My family was and is screwed up, but I have never held it against them and I have always enjoyed good relations with my family despite issues, which were plenty (alcoholism, psychiatric hospitals, runaway siblings). My spiritual orientation growing up could only be described as Buddhist. My neighbors were Nicheren Buddhists and my mother became a Nicheren Buddhist when I was 10 and to this day I believe this move saved her life. I became Orthodox through a calling that is rather involved and perhaps better saved for later. Suffice it to say that I was not part of any group and that the nature of my experience with God had devastated my social life in a way that left me both free and motivated to pursue my ideals unhindered by personal, material or financial ties. My first experience at Platina was Pascha in 1990 and I was so blown away that nothing has come close to shocking me with revelatory joy since then, Optina Monastery, Russian Elders and living saints no exception.
Despite what I believe was a deep and formative period at Platina and St. Paisius, it would appear that I spent considerably less time in these places than many in this community, especially the moderators.
I had no plans for life after college I(I lie - I did, but they were so lame as not to count) so I stayed at the Chico bookstore for 6 months until I moved to the Pacific Northwest to work as a journeyman woodworker and the journeyman carpenter for two years, living with a small parish in Port Townsend. From there, inspired by the stories of those recently returned from the Russky Palomnik mission in Russia who I met at the St. Paisus Academy in 1993, I went to Russia for a year to work in the mission. About half of this time I spent living as a pilgrim in residence in Optina Monastery, where I had numerous encounters / talks with Elder Eli with whom I never became close but whose influence was nevertheless decisive in my future path.
Among other mind bending and life changing events, I was robbed of everything and this resulted in a forced trip to the Netherlands where I was re-acquainted with Fr. Dcn Josef Moes, a man who later became perhaps my closet Orthodox friend and co-struggler. I returned to Russia and finished my year long commitment to the mission and after a brief 4 month stay back in the States, during which time I met many of the people in this community, I relocated to Amsterdam where I and another American partner worked with Fr. Josef to set up and maintain the 'Pad Van Valaam' bookstore for 5 years.
Like many people associated with the St. Herm Brotherhood, we suffered 'persecution' pretty seriously here in the form of jurisdictional warfare, some of it involving the lowest elements of human behavior know to man. I was a 'Hermanite loyalist' and remained so even after the dirt went down in the late '90's. I have no regrets and would probably do it again. As mentioned by whosplitheatom (I think?) in a previous post, I would never have become Orthodox if I had encountered these other people 'representing the Orthodox Church'. I was privileged to have Archimandrite Adriaan Korpral (+2004) as my confessor at this time - a direct disciple of Archbishop John. Fluke or no, Fr. Adriaan, already in his mid 80's and in poor health, protected our group and defended me personally before a horde of accusers who were horrendously offended that we had set up shop in the same town without kissing their brown rosebuttons and declared us anathema from the altar on the Sunday of Orthodoxy on at least two occasions. This test of faith was not the first or last, but it was perhaps the most productive in my experience as I had only Archbishop John to go to in prayer and he brought me out of it all. Not without scars, not without dipping my face in shit 'n' shame, but to a higher truth nevertheless.
After the events that changed Platina, I married and moved to Russia. The Pad Van Valaam bookstore remained active for another 6 years, finally closing in 2006. I am very proud of this, as I built the place with my bare hands and paid for it by cleaning toilets. I had lots of help, of course, but day to day it was my but on the line. I didn't earn a cent, though most of Orthodox Nederland thought I was subsidized by St. Herms or something. When my position became vacant, there were no takers. A small crowed of people came to Orthodoxy though out mission, some got inspired and many more got fed. It was not DTTW, which I have always considered more ass-breaking than anything I ever did, but everybody has to use their talent.
These 8 years in Russia have been some of the best years of my life. My inner life has taken a completely new direction in marriage and family life dominates my spiritual continuum. I have three kids and we have no plans to live in the US anytime soon.
Of course, this is a Readers Digest version of things. I hope I will have a chance to get into particulars later.
Looking back I can say with some confidence that the experience of Orthodoxy via the St. Herman Brotherhood was (and remains) qualitatively much higher than anything available elsewhere. This is just my take and there is probably some self justification in this, but there it is. There is nothing like the Valaam Academy or St. Paisius Academy anywhere in Russia, much less Holland. I don't know about other places. I have taught in St. Tikhon's University here and been a part of catechism groups and there is simply no comparison. Many would disagree and I often hear criticism of the insularity and pretension and self righteousness of certain people or St. Herms as a group. My response is that I have yet to be involved with a group of people who are not messed up. Lesser hurricanes have completely destroyed other communities. Our boys got up with crap on their faces and had double helpings of humble pie and for the most part it has been good for 'em. Heaven knows how they (how we all) prayed and continue to pray for those who those who got creamed, passed though the fire and the dropped like hot dukey rocks. People whose only crime was being needy at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Nothing is accidental, but man if karma is not part of Orthodox epistemology, the final picture in the Kingdom revealed chapter is going to be really interesting.
Russia offers other growth paradigms, chiefly life as a foreigner, life in a 1000 year old Church and a traditional culture that is still coming to grips with its own apostasy, furniture issues and blind aggression towards itself. I don't know if it would be appreciated, but for what it's worth the American experience of Orthodoxy has many real advantages over 'traditional' Orthodoxy. The American character, rootless, inquisitive, mobile, daring, pubescent, self conscious, explosive, generous, bumptious, shallow, boisterous and badass presents unique conditions for spiritual growth within Orthodoxy. These things are what I have always hated about Americans and (I say without a trace of irony) what I miss most about America. Oh, and Mexican food.
Unlike many in this community, I do not have serious issues with church authority, organized religion or what not. I don't know why. Am I lucky? Maybe I didn't try hard enough? I hear the objections and rants (some very cogent people here, despite self diagnosed neuroses and freak o' nature-ness) and I am not really drawn into them as 'positions' as much as I am by the people who write them. Real people, real issues and general realness. I hope my lack of existential angst and laissez-faire attitude to the ubiquity of human ugliness rampaging about within the Church do not disqualify me from participating in this community.
I also hope to learn how to cut the post down with a little switch around here somewhere so it doesn't clog up the page.
with much gratitude for the existence of your collective asses