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Orthodoxy in America
By Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim Rose

A talk, delivered at the Saint Herman Winter Pilgrimage on December 12/25, 1979, at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, N.Y.

We have gathered here today to venerate St. Herman, first saint of the American land, first
Orthodox missionary to America, bringer of Orthodox Christianity to the New World. This feast gives us an opportunity to look at the Orthodoxy he brought: what has happened to it since his time, where it stands in this country today, what are the hopes for it -- and for us, who are today's Orthodox Christians -- in the years ahead, nearly two hundred years after the seeds of the true faith were planted here.

The Past of Orthodoxy in America

I will say only a few words about the past of Orthodoxy in America, in order to concentrate chiefly on what faces us today.

The Beginning and Early Success

First of all, of course, there was the mission of St. Herman himself, with the seven other
missionaries who came with him from Valaam and Konevits Monasteries in the north of Russia in 1794. It is really astonishing what an Orthodox foundation these missionaries laid in Alaska, considering how few they were and what obstacles they faced. One of these eight, Fr. Ioasaph, was consecrated bishop in order to increase the work in America, but he was lost at sea on the return voyage before he could even begin his work. There were few priests in the early years, St. Herman himself wasn't a priest, and the Russian officials in Alaska were not very cooperative -- but in those years thousands of natives were baptized, and their descendants remain Orthodox today; and with St. Herman's labors as a monk, preacher, and carer of orphans, America saw for the first time a living example of the traditional Orthodox piety and spiritual life which made Holy Russia. This is something very important for our Orthodoxy today -- this example of true Orthodox Christianity in practice.

The next great Orthodox missionary in America was the holy hierarch Innocent of Alaska, who first as priest and then as bishop gave a classic example of Orthodox missionary activity, translating the Gospel into the local languages, caring for the bodies as well as the souls of the flock of his vast missionary territory. In his last years, when he became Metropolitan of Moscow, he supported missionary labors in other places also.

With the sale of Alaska to the American government in 1867, the mission territory changed
somewhat: the Russian government continued to send support to Alaska, but the seat of the
Diocese now became San Francisco, and for the first time an English-language mission was undertaken. The outstanding missionary at the beginning of this century in San Francisco was Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich, a Serb by birth who died in Yugoslavia in 1940, whose books on Orthodox faith and practice in English are still in print. Bishop Tikhon (the future Patriarch of Moscow) also greatly encouraged the English-language mission, and under him and the other Russian bishops there were missions also for other national groups -- Syrians, Serbs, etc.

First Troubles

However, even at this time the beginnings of weaknesses could be noted. America is a vast
land; the Russians and other Orthodox settlers were widely scattered; priests were thinly
spread; and perhaps most important of all, there were no otherworldly saints like St. Herman to plant the seeds of holiness deep in the American soil. Further, the English-speaking American people were not simple like the natives of Alaska, and they already practiced some form of Christian faith.

For all of these reasons we can see the beginning, even before the Russian Revolution, of the terrible disease we see in the Orthodox jurisdictions in America today; the disease of
worldliness. Outwardly, the Orthodox clergy began to look like the non-Orthodox clergy around them; inwardly, the concern was mainly to provide priests for the widely-scattered ethnic flock, without deepening their Orthodoxy by providing English texts of the classic Orthodox books or reaching out to tell the non-Orthodox who might listen that there is a true Christianity that is undreamed of in the West, the fullness of Holy Orthodoxy.

The Revolution of 1917 in Russia struck a deadly blow to the Orthodox mission: support from Russia was cut off, the oneness of the Church fell apart into national jurisdictions, and the clergy were left pretty much to themselves. The worldliness of American life was left free to put its stamp on the Orthodox mission, and there was not much strength to oppose it. When Archbishop Vitaly (later of Jordanville) came to America in the 1930's to become ruling bishop, he saw that Orthodoxy in America, if left to itself, would simply turn into an "Eastern-rite Protestantism" - that is, it would retain some of the externals of Orthodoxy, but inwardly would be scarcely different from the worldly Protestantism which is the predominant religion of America.

Opposing the Worldliness

The second wave of Russian emigration after World War 11, including the transfer to
Jordanville of Archbishop Vitaly's whole monastic community which he had established in
Czechoslovakia -- was the first major influence acting against the worldliness which has been engulfing America in the 20th century. But its influence has been mostly restricted to our Russian Church Outside of Russia -- the other jurisdictions in America for the most part have continued their worldly path, and this is the chief reason for the widening difference between us and them.

One has only to go into a church of one of the modernist Orthodox jurisdictions in this country to see some of the results of this worldly spirit: pews, often organs, streamlined and sometimes dramatized services, various modern gimmicks for making money; and very often the chief emphasis is placed on ethnic rather than spiritual values -- including the newest ethnic emphasis, Americanism.

The churches of our Russian Church Outside of Russia are usually quite different, with no pews or organs, and a more old-worldly kind of piety; and there has been a noticeable revival of traditional church iconography and other church arts. The traditional Orthodox influence is visible even in such external things as the way our clergy dress and the beards which almost all of our clergy have. Just a few decades ago almost no Orthodox clergy in America had beards or wore ryassas on the street; and while this is something outward, it is still a reflection of a traditional mentality which has had many inward, spiritual results also. A few of the more conservative priests in other jurisdictions have now begun to return to more traditional Orthodox ways, but if so, it is largely under the influence of our Church, and a number of these priests have told us that they look to our Russian Church Outside of Russia as a standard and inspiration of genuine Orthodoxy.

However, the object of this talk is to go a little deeper than these externals and to see where our Orthodoxy is today in America, and especially what we ourselves can do to make ourselves more fervent, more Orthodox, more in the spirit of St. Herman, who for all time has set the "tone" for Orthodoxy in America.

To do this, we must first of all recognize the chief enemy facing us: it is, of course, the devil, who wants to knock us off the path of salvation; and the chief means he uses in our times to do this is the spirit of worldliness. This is what has weakened and watered down Orthodoxy in America -- and not just in the other jurisdictions. The spirit of worldliness is in the air we breathe, and we cannot escape it. You cannot watch television, you cannot go to a supermarket, you cannot walk in the streets of any city in America -- without being bombarded by this spirit. In supermarkets and other large stores they even play lighthearted, senseless music in order to catch you in this spirit and make sure that you don't think or feel in an otherworldly way. Our Church and everyone in it is attacked by this spirit, and we can't escape it by isolating ourselves in a ghetto or in a small town; the outside influences can be lessened, perhaps, in such ways, but if we are not fighting an inward spiritual battle against worldliness, we will still be conquered by it without fail. And so the chief question regarding the future of our Orthodoxy in America -- and in the whole world, for that matter -- is: how do we remain orthodox and develop our orthodoxy against the spirit of worldliness that attacks us on all sides?

In order to answer this question we have to ask first another question that might be a little
surprising: what is Orthodoxy? But this question is basic; if we aren't sure just what Orthodoxy is, we won't know what we're trying to preserve and develop against the spirit of worldliness. And so let us ask this question:

Published with the kind permission of Bishop Alexander Mileant

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