Words at the Graduation of Saint Vladimir's Seminary

Bishop Seraphim : Talk
Words at the Graduation
of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox
Theological Seminary
Crestwood, New York, USA
18 May, 2002

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

This Seminary, or rather, Academy, is the inheritor of a great tradition of the great theological schools of Russia and Paris in the last centuries. Of course, we are at least subliminally aware of this, but it is important to remember most specifically that this inheritance is not so much found in books and lectures as in persons and examples. These persons and examples have been notable, and they have been real characters. They have been well-formed and distinct personalities. True, they wrote, and write, but the writing is not just a cerebral exercise. It is the product of their life’s experience. It is the result of an experience focussed on the daily liturgical worship in the chapel, and primarily focussed the Divine Liturgy. It is part of an inheritance which wishes to serve the Saviour by living, as much as possible, according to the Gospel.

There is such a dangerous tendency in our life nowadays to live in the head, to be cerebral, and to compartmentalise. It is inevitable that we face this struggle, since this is the character of the society in which we live. We swim in this water, and it is extraordinarily difficult not to become just like this water – the more so if one be a convert, and has recently come out from that water. However, this school of fish of which we are part is not given only to swim in this water, it is given to clean this water, and to transform this water. Maybe we might be compared to snails, which do this sort of work (since we generally move so slowly about it). Regardless, our task is not to become part of our environment, but to work with the Lord in changing and transforming it into what it was supposed to be, but did not know the way. This is a part of what the Lord is saying to us when He says that we are to be in the world but not to be of it.

Finding that balance is probably most of a lifetime’s work. That balance is for us, also, not an option. It is part of who we are. The Orthodox way (this term, of course connects us to the first Christians) is about just that – balance. We do not find balance in ourselves, and we certainly do not find it in the world around us. Yet we are called to live it, for by living it we are using perhaps one of the most fundamental evangelical tools. Love, self-emptying love, love like the Saviour’s, goes with this middleness. It sounds strange, but it can actually be a compliment to address someone as “your mediocrity”. I remember I was recently at a colloquium, which was taking place in Montréal at about the same time as a political summit in Québec City. The summit was behind fortified fences, about which there was the usual violence. The question was posed : where do the Orthodox stand – with those inside the fence, or with those outside the fence ? The answer was : “With those on the fence”.

So why, you may ask, is the bishop spouting vague, platitudinous statements, and stating the obvious to us ?

I have repeated some plain and obvious fundamentals because, since you that are graduating are now completing your studies, you are leaving the bosom of this protecting and supportive community, and you are going out to the various places to which God has called you. You begin in earnest to serve Christ and feed His sheep, in one or another ministry or capacity, whether it be in pastoral leadership, in teaching, in singing, or in serving in other ways. All that you have learnt in the last years, you will need not only to call upon time after time, but to build on in continual reading and reflection. If you try to do all this without relying constantly on the fundamentals, you will have great difficulties. No matter how much you know about your faith, no matter how well-read you are, no matter what a strong vision you have of how things should be (and could be), nevertheless, without the fundamentals of prayer, of worship, of self-emptying love, without a real balance, you may well find that your efforts are fruitless. I hope, too, that by this time you have learnt and understood that the virtue of obedience is part of this foundation, and part of the fruit of this self-emptying love. Without being able to offer this loving obedience to the Saviour, without being therefore able to offer this loving obedience to those in authority within the Church, there is the danger of not bearing good fruit.

Keeping the fundamentals in mind is of the greatest importance for us all if we are concerned about maintaining balance in the love of Christ. Everything has to be tempered with this love. We can know and understand everything, but without this love, without Christ in the centre of everything, this knowledge and understanding can wither and become empty. As you probably have been finding your daily source of life and focus in the worship in the chapel, so you will understand the importance of maintaining this habit from hereon in your daily life. Even if you do not have a church in which to serve or pray daily, you still have your home. You have your room. You have your place of prayer, which you must be careful not to neglect. Always it is crucial to take care of the foundation of our life. I have enough experience of my own in not having paid attention that I can witness to you that a great deal of time is wasted if these things are not attended to vigilantly. Without this watchfulness, it is easy to make a lot of silly, and even stupid mistakes. If your desire is truly to share what you have learnt and experienced here, for the sake of building up the Church, for the sake of saving souls, for the sake of being a bringer of light and life, then do not neglect the foundations. Be careful to nurture love in your heart. Be vigilant that you live always in forgiveness with everyone.

It is critically important for us to know where we have come from, and where we are going. This does not mean simply that, having studied the history of the Church, and knowing the current events of the Church, we can make some judgements (although this plays its part). I have in mind far more the importance of knowing the personalities who have carried this history, and of knowing how this history has come to us through these persons. It is important to look at the persons who have taught us, and to take their good examples, because others will be looking at us and taking our examples, too. Let us learn from the personal struggles of those who have been teaching us and forming us. Let us look at their self-sacrificing obedience for the love of Christ, and their readiness to receive much less (in worldly terms) for the sake of feeding the lambs who, in this place, are the students. Let us look at the example of Father Hopko who is now retiring from the Deanship of this Seminary. Let us see how he has taken the best from his predecessors, those great and famous lights of this community, and how he has shared with us what he has learnt, in lectures and in living example, in anecdotes and inspired sermons. Let us look at the important manner in which he has set us an example, as he has been distilling what he has learnt in speaking and in writing, making it all accessible to those who have not been able to have such a heritage, or who have not such an education. Let us look at his history of desiring to feed the sheep. Let us look and learn as we see that he does put these foundations first in his life, how he has openly shared his struggles in living the repentant life. Let us look at how he daily remembers those who have asked him to pray for them, and how he manages somehow to keep a correspondence with human beings. Let us look and learn, and let us do the same as far as we are able with God’s help. And mostly, let us remember to give thanks to God.

Let us look similarly at the example of our father, Metropolitan Theodosius, who has lived a similar life of obedience, going where he was asked, doing what he was told, remembering his inheritance, speaking about his ancestors, passing on what he was given, being near to his people, serving in love. Let us pay attention to the fact that, in the course of the Metropolitan’s life, there have been many times of testing. Let us remember the most famous, and, perhaps the most useful of his inherited sayings : “Measure seven times, and cut once”. Let us remember how he has been so quietly kind and materially supportive to many a person, many a cleric in dire need, how he has rescued many.

Let us look at the lives of both of these servants of the Church, together with the lives of the other faculty members. Let us remember their loving service, and how they persevere in this loving service, even when it is not appreciated, even when it is rejected. Let us remember how, with love for Christ, they persevere and endure, even if they are not understood. Let us remember that, out of loving obedience, they do it for the sake of feeding the sheep, for the sake of exercising the gifts God has given them.

Let us look and learn from all these God-loving, God-serving, and I dare say God-pleasing persons, because it is in their footsteps that we all tread. I can say “we” with confidence, because I, too, am their student. Let us look at them, and remember that God is with them, as He is with us, when we are facing difficulties, when we are misunderstood, when we are rejected, and especially when others speak evil about us. Let us look and learn, and remember, as we embrace our various calls from the Lord, that we must take care of our foundations, in order to put all that we have learnt and experienced into fruitful practice. Let us remember each other in prayer, and let us support and encourage and protect one another in our mutual service. Let us work together for the sake of the love of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Let us commend ourselves, therefore, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God, glorifying Him together with His Father, who is from everlasting, and His all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.