Words at the Graduation Exercises of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

Archbishop Seraphim : Talk
Words at the Graduation Exercises of
Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary
South Canaan, Pensylvania, USA
25 May, 2008

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is risen.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). These are words that I heard frequently repeatedly throughout my childhood. They were cited by an older man whom I very much respected. I rather think at this distance that I had such a regard for this man particularly because my father had expressed a good opinion of him, and because he seemed to live in the context of these words. The testimony of his words, backed up by his way of life, were an important influence on me. He was not at all the only such influence. There were many. However, of the many, his was likely one of the more outstanding and well-developed characters. That is not to exclude, by any means, the significant personalities in my own family, and the testimonies of their lives. At any rate, these words were important in the early part of my life, and they remain important until this day.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”. These words seemed, in my early years, a simple statement of logical fact. How could it be otherwise ? If He changed, He would become someone else. It was only as life progressed that the significance of these words took greater shape for me. I will return to these words soon.

In the might of the horse He [the Lord] will not delight, nor with the legs of a man is He well-pleased” (Psalm 146:10). When I was young, I liked this particular sentence, not because I was paying attention to the meaning of the sentence, but because I thought the construction of the sentence was amusing. I have such a sense of humour that I quickly, often instantaneously, see something humourous (frequently where it was never intended). I suppose that one might say that, instead of just playing with words, it is playing also with mental images, making as it were puns on various levels. In this particular case, the humourous reaction in my youth kept my attention on this verse into later life, when I began, through experience, to understand more properly what it meant. Its meaning, I came to understand, is connected to a verse that comes in the preceding Psalm, such that I sometimes in my mind blend the two. These are the words : “Do not put your trust in princes, and in sons of Men in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 145:3).

Now, I will extract myself from this brief personal reverie, and I will address this present event : the celebration of the graduation of a class of students at Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. However, how can I not mention, first, how significant it feels for me to be presenting these words here, in this seminary ? How can I not mention the connexion that I know exists between this seminary, this monastery, and the Archdiocese of Canada ? Here, in the monastery’s cemetery, rests Archbishop Arseny, who is considered to be a saint by many Canadians, and also some others. This holy man was one of the founders of this monastery, in his first days in North America. Later in life, he founded this seminary, as his “retirement occupation”. He was a missionary archimandrite in Canada a century ago, and later bishop of the diocese for a long time. There, he founded also monasteries, and the Sifton Pastoral School in Manitoba. He was an eloquent preacher – so much so that he was given the nick-name, “the Canadian Chrysostom”. He wrote. He published. He travelled endlessly : by foot, horse, auto, rail, boat. He was an example of a Christian. He was an example of a missionary. He was an example of a pastor. He was an example of a bishop. It is a blessing to be able, not as often as I would like, to come to this place, the site of many historical events, and the resting-place of many historically significant persons. In addition to these resident blessings, we have also the blessing of having the visit just now in this holy monastery, of the Kursk-Root Icon of the Theotokos, and of Relics of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. It was this icon before which Saint Seraphim was healed, and it was not a pre-planned conjunction that this Wonder-working Icon of the Mother of God, and the Relics of Saint Seraphim would be together here. It happens because the Lord blessed it to be so. It is important that we receive this blessing as such, particularly because we are in the middle of the Feast of Pascha, and the Lord is filling “our thirsty souls with the waters of godliness”.

Many a graduate of a modern North American Orthodox Seminary seems to like to refer to him-, or her-self as a “theologian”. To do so is certainly within the mentality of the West, but I believe this is a bit presumptuous, and I will say why. Once a person may have a degree in a special area, that person is generally regarded as a so-called professional, or even expert, in that area. The person has accumulated the necessary knowledge. Physicians, nurses, teachers, and others are like this. In the context of the same understanding, therefore, graduates in theology may sometimes call themselves theologians, because of the degree. However, for us Orthodox, this does not properly apply. Our perspective on this matter is different. We call the Apostle John a Theologian ; we call the Patriarch Saint Gregory a Theologian. In their lives, they would never have called themselves as such. It was for the Church to see this in them, and to proclaim them as Theologians. This did not happen just because they wrote so well. They are persons, therefore, who have a deep, personal experience of the Lord, and they have the gift from God to put that experience into words that clarify God’s revelation of Himself to us. They are persons who, in the context of their societies, spoke and wrote about Jesus Christ, the Truth, in a way that could be comprehended by these societies. A person can, in the same way, therefore, grow to be a theologian in the true, Orthodox sense of being a theologian, but it does not come simply from study. The study has been, is, and will be important, but it is only a small element of one’s development.

Especially because of how we are formed in the West, and because of the sheer volume of material that has to be addressed in a short time, all this important study in a seminary has a tendency to be primarily, if not only, an intellectual exercise. This western formation tends to produce a focus on oneself (almost in isolation from other persons). This limitation extends now to our popular dropping of the use in speech of the word “mind”, and replacing it with the word “brain”. So we seem to perceive ourselves as isolated egos walking about, and to consider that all knowledge, all intellect, is limited to the brain. It is interesting to me to see how this state of affairs has developed in the course of my own life-time, because I do not recall at all that this reduced and limited understanding of ourselves was the prevailing environment of my youth. Nevertheless, it has been rightly said in this same West, that no man is an island. It is true that a human being cannot be reduced to the brain (contrary to Star-Trek, Doctor Who, and other science-fiction stories and theories). The Lord has created us as integrated beings. Who we are is not limited to the brain. Who we are is not limited even simply to our bodies. We are – each-and-all – connected to each other, not only by blood (as to our relatives), but as a race, altogether. We are connected even beyond this to the rest of God’s creation.

I say all this, only because I believe it is important that we all recall that the study we do, the knowledge that we acquire, is not merely a multitude of facts to be stored in the brain. Regardless of our environmental formation, we ought not to consider ourselves as self-sufficient, looking to our own strength, the strength of our legs, the strength of horses, the strength of mighty machines, or any other strength in separation from the Lord. Rather, as we are exhorted by an Anglican reformer, what we study in Christ and about Christ our Saviour is to be read, marked, learnt, and inwardly digested. Accepting that the Lord is God, and has revealed Himself to us, and that He is revealing Himself to us, it is important that we consider that the time we have been spending in concentrated study has been in a way like planting seeds in soil. The seeds need water in order to come to real life. This water is the activity of the love of the Lord, who alone is constant, who alone is faithful, who is the same Lord, Jesus Christ, who loved the apostles, and whom the apostles loved. Here is our strength. Here is our raison d’être. The reason the study was undertaken in the first place must be because, indeed, the Lord has revealed Himself to us. He has touched our hearts. He has moved us to desire to serve Him in some capacity, in accordance with our gifts, in accordance with His blessing, in accordance with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So it is love that motivated the move to this place. It is love that motivated the beginning of the study. It is love that sustained the study. It is love that will both enable its continuance, and its maturation.

What I am driving at is this : passing exams, and receiving a diploma is only the beginning. As formal study comes to its completion, its assimilation into oneself truly begins. This assimilation is something that takes time – sometimes a life-time. The study has been about words about the Lord. Now, these words have to be truly connected with the Word, Himself. This connexion has to happen in the heart. Our life in Christ derives from the heart, and it is in the heart that we encounter Christ. It is this heart that informs the head, and it is this heart, with the knowledge, and experience of Christ, that puts all of the head-knowledge into perspective, into balance. It is this balance into which we must grow.

As we live our lives, we are expected to give a good account for our Hope. But giving this good account is more difficult in our days, because words as such are now shifting in their meanings, and people often have a hard time hearing them, perceiving them, understanding them. If a person is in a compensated responsibility in the Church, such as a priest, one may sometimes hear from parishioners : “We pay you to say those things”. So the words themselves are not as sufficient as we would like them to be, and neither is the fact that one is a bishop, priest, deacon, sub-deacon, reader, singer, or anything else. Under these circumstances, it is our Hope, Himself, who must speak. Our life itself must testify to all, not just by glib words, but by factual acts, Who is our Hope, and what is the meaning of His Love. This is the major part of this assimilation of what one reads, marks, and learns : it must be digested ; it must become one with oneself ; it must become an integral part of who we are. We must be ready to practice what we preach, and to set the good example ourselves. We, who know Christ, must live Christ. We are not theologians only because we know what to say, and why to say it. We might become theologians in the true sense if we are able to live in this harmony with Christ, if Christ is truly the source of everything in our life.

To be called to be a leader in the Church is to be called to a great responsibility, because the leader cannot just be someone who gives orders. As a shepherd in the Middle-East walks before his flock, leading them on the right path, so the leader must go ahead of the flock and show the way. The leader must, like Christ, establish some sort of relationship of love and of trust with those who are following this lead. Being a leader in Christ means that a person will experience the need for serious prayer, serious study of the Scriptures, serious intercession. This leadership in love is not just a job, an occupation. It is a way of life. It is who you are. This leadership is also costly, because of the open, that is, vulnerable love of Christ. The cost comes in experiencing the pain that a parent feels when a child suffers for some reason, or when the child rebels. Sometimes, the cost comes in experiencing the pain of a personal attack. The leader in Christ does follow in the footsteps of Christ. He prepared us. He told us that if the world hated Him, it will hate us as much as it hated Him, and still hates Him (see John 15:18). Following Christ’s foot-steps and being rejected and hated in the same way is a consequence of co-operating with Christ in allowing the Light of His love to shine in the darkness (see John 1:5). The darkness tries to overcome the Light, but it cannot overcome the Light because the Light is Christ. It is greatly important for anyone who is a leader in Christ to remember this constantly. Leadership in Christ costs spiritual warfare, and our only protection is Christ. Leadership in Christ requires that we be careful not to put our trust in human beings, who always fail somehow, even if they do not want to. Our trust must be in Christ, so that we can be constant in our love for the human beings we serve, in, and with Christ. Our trust must be in Christ, so that when we, too, fail, we can be quick in turning about, quick in repentance.

In a world which is afraid of this Love, it is really important that we be careful to be faithful, and to remember Whom we serve. The world is twisting and turning, trying to suggest every possible way to understand Christ in a different way, so that if it were possible, Christ could be reduced ; God could be boxed in, and He could be manipulated by us. In a distorted environment that wants to present to us the logical absurdity that there can be varieties of truths, it is crucial that we keep our hearts focussed on Him Who is the one, the only Truth. In a world that is both fleeing, and at the same time attacking the Truth that is Christ, it is crucial that we remember Whom we serve. It is crucial that we keep our personal relationship with Him alive. Our Saviour is not just a proposition, not just a philosopher, not just a “good guy”. Our Saviour is the Word of God become flesh – the Word, Who speaks everything into being. Our Saviour is Love Incarnate. That is why it is important to maintain always as a priority our daily communion in the heart with Him. It is important that we not only take the time to be with Him, but also make the time. The daily priority of remembering Christ needs to be kept. It may be said that this is not different from the care that needs to be taken in the communion of love within a family. It must be nurtured daily. I know not a few persons who, in Christ, have overcome the difficulties in doing so, and who have made the time to be with Christ for a time at the beginning of every day. They say the set prayers, they take a little time in silence, they pray for their family, and for others, and they take a little Holy Water. How better to make a good beginning, and keep strong the foundation of our being ?

It is for reasons such as these that I am so attached to the words from the Epistle to the Hebrews that I have cited at the beginning. In such an unstable environment as that in which we subsist, it is very important that we keep our equilibrium. All sorts of people are struggling, searching, testing. They need some sign of hope. There is only the One. It is our responsibility to share this Hope. They will test our sincerity, our truthfulness. We must be as faithful and as constant as we can be, living in this Love, in Him who is the Truth. May the same Lord Jesus Christ give to those who graduate today the Grace to persevere in His Love and to grow to true Christian maturity in serving Him as they are called. May the same Lord Jesus Christ give to those who are continuing their studies the Grace to persevere in His Love, increasing in true knowledge of Him as they study about Him. May the same Lord Jesus Christ give to those who are teaching, the Grace and the mature Love to convey to their disciples the whole truth about Him, who is the Truth. We have a huge amount of work to do here in North America, and it can only be accomplished in, and through our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” ; and glory be to Him, with His unoriginate Father, and His all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, always, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.