WHAT CAN I DO?
A lecture delivered at the Russian Orthodox Youth Conference near Sydney, Australia, on 25 December 2003.
'Save yourself', said St Seraphim of Sarov. But how can we save ourselves? In the first talk I gave, I asked three questions:
'Who am I?'
'Where do I come from?'
'Where am I going?'
In order to understand how we might be able to save ourselves, I am going to ask a fourth question: 'What can I do?' and, specifically in our context, 'What can I do for the Church?'
Here I would like to share with you a piece of advice telling me what I could do in the Church. It was given to me nearly nineteen years ago when I was ordained to the diaconate. An old lady came up to me then and said: 'The trouble with you is that you are young and intelligent'. Since I knew the piety of that old lady, I trusted her and understood that in some sense I had to become old and stupid. Well, over the last nineteen years I have made efforts to become both.
You see what the old lady meant is that when you are young, you lack experience of Life, which is your real teacher. And secondly, by 'intelligent', she meant that when you are young, you are close to the world of studies, school, university, seminary. You've read a lot of books. As a result, you may think that you know something, for book knowledge can quickly 'go to your head', and not just in the literal sense. Salvation comes not from how many books we have read, for that can actually puff up our mind and make us pretentious and proud. Our salvation comes from humility. As a wise man once said: 'The more you know, the more you realise how little you know'.
In one sense our question, 'What can I do for the Church', is ridiculous. Ultimately, after all, the Church does not need us at all; it is we who need the Church. In some ways, rather than ask a question about what we can do for the Church, we should be asking the question: 'What can the Church do for us?' Though that question too suggests that somehow we are religious consumers, and that we expect something to be done for us by the Church. In reality, we get nothing, if we put nothing in. The Church is not magic. As the proverbs say: 'First help yourself and then heaven will help you' and 'No pains, no gains'. As the Gospel says: 'The Kingdom of heaven is taken by force'. In reality we should not expect anything. But whatever the case, the fact is that the Church has done and does do things for us.
For example the Twelve Apostles, the Church of Pentecost, went out and changed the whole of the Mediterranean world. Just twelve people transforming the greatest Empire in history. A highly-organised Empire, hundreds of years old, based on slavery, tyranny and domination that became Orthodox.
And what about Russia, pagan Russia, before Baptism? That too was a terrible age, where children were sacrificed to gods of the wind and fire. It was an age without any sort of morality and justice at all. Anything went. You can read about this in the history books on ancient Russian history. But if you do not believe me, then look at what happened to Russia when she renounced Orthodoxy in 1917. Then she simply fell back into the old paganism, and started out on the appalling road of Soviet paganism. Instead of processions carrying banners and icons, they held processions carrying pictures of tyrants and rifles. Instead of venerating holy relics in Moscow, they began venerating the rotting mummy of their tyrant. Paganism was restored. Nothing new there. Nothing changed until the Second Baptism of Russia began.
If Orthodoxy could transform the Roman Empire, if it could transfigure pagan Russia, old and new, then just think what Orthodoxy can do for Australia or any other country. It can transform Australia, both individually and socially. How? Well, first of all, we have to learn.
WHAT CAN I DO TO LEARN?
Any change must begin with ourselves. To paraphrase the words of an American President of over forty years ago: 'Ask not what the Church can do for you: ask what you can do for the Church'. But to do something for the Church, we first have to learn, to put something inside ourselves.
I could answer the question 'What can I do for the Church?' by saying: 'Become a saint'. What a thought! Someone here could become a saint in this huge country which has never known an Orthodox saint. What a calling! But that's not very realistic now, because that's a lifetime's work, and you want practical answers to begin with here and now. So I want to speak in this part of my talk not about stories from the ancient past or ideas, but about stories of real learning experience, all of which I have seen and experienced at first hand. Here's the first story:
There was once a young man, zealous for the Faith, who moved house and joined his local parish. It was an old parish and one of the things that struck him was how dirty all the icons were. He spoke to the elderly priest about this. The latter gave the young man a blessing to clean the icons using a soft tissue and warm, soapy water. Over a period of several weeks between services, in such a way that nobody would notice, this is what the young man did. He removed decades, sometimes centuries, of soot from the icons. In two or three cases of particularly black icons it became clear for the first time who the icons actually depicted.
The only thing was some people did notice. One devout old parishioner noticed the bright colours and told others in the church that a miracle had taken place; the icons had renewed themselves. 'It's a sign', she said. People became interested, recalling that they had never noticed a particular icon before and even began asking about the lives of some of the saints. In the end the parish priest had to tell them that no miracle had happened. Of course in one sense the parish priest was right: no miracle had happened. But in another sense, he was wrong, a miracle had happened. The icons had been cleaned and no-one else had ever done that or even thought of doing that.
So here is something we can do: I don't necessarily mean wash the icons, I mean - get to know the saints in our churches. Do we know the saints in our icons and on the frescoes? Do we venerate them? By venerate, I mean not only kiss them and light candles and pray in front of them. By veneration, I also mean, do we know their lives? After the Scriptures, the lives of the saints were the favourite reading of Orthodox in old Russia. Are they ours?
And here's something else we can do. When a priest or deacon censes round a church, he censes not only the holy images, the icons, but also the living images, the people. Perhaps we know our icons, but do we know the people in our parishes, those who are made in the image, as an icon, of God? Yes, surely we know our family and one or two neighbours, but do we know the others? Among many of the older and not so old parishioners, there are always people who have had incredible lives.
Among former parishioners, I had one who had played with Tsarevich Alexis as a child, another who had been the governess of the King of Greece. As for our eldest daughter's godfather, he was a Belorussian who had fought against Polish persecutors before the Second War, escaped from the concentration camps of both Hitler and Stalin, joined the British Army in Persia after trekking through Siberia, and then fought with the French Resistance.
I could go on and on and on. There are extraordinary people in our parishes with extraordinary stories of being saved by the saints, by icons, like a babushka in our little parish in England now, who escaped the Japanese by walking through China during the Second World War and so escaping to India. All on foot, as a fourteen year old girl, her only possession her icon of her patron-saint, which ever since has hung over her bed.
Get to know these people, learn from them, visit them, talk to them, write down their stories for yourselves and for your children.
You want to be a deacon or a priest? Seminary is useful, and you have to be ordained by your bishop, but your real education begins with your parishioners. That's why the Russian proverb says: 'The family's our primary school, but the parish is our high school'.
Another story: A hospital visit to a terminally ill man. He asked the priest: what can I do while I am in bed here in the last weeks of my life? The priest answered him: learn Psalm 50 by heart and recite as often as you can. The old man answered. 'That is what I have been doing every day of my life since I was seven'. And then he repeated Psalm 50 by heart. He'd known it all his life.
But perhaps you'd like some other ideas about what each one of us can do.
WHAT CAN I DO IN THE CHURCH?
As I have just been saying, our parish churches are families, communities. Do we know the icons in them? Do we know the people in them? Let us get to know the lives of both. You will be surprised when you get to know the people you pray alongside. As the Russian proverb says: 'Chuzhaya dusha - tiomny lyes'. 'Another's soul is a dark forest'. In a community, we look after one another, we visit each other in hospital. We pray for each other. Ask your parish priest what you can do to help him. Remember in the Church, we are saved together, saved by the sacrament of mutual love. The Romanian Elder Cleopa said: 'Only acts of mercy and prayer can release souls from hell'. And that may well mean releasing our own souls from hell.
Next, how well do you know the Church and the Church calendar? Do you know the services, understand how harmoniously they fit together? If you don't, find out; one of the best ways is learning how to read or to serve in the altar. Start attending Vigil Service. It's surprising how many people do not, when they could. Speak to your parish priest. Maybe he would like you to help at the parish school. Maybe there is no parish school, because people like you have not come forward to offer their help. Maybe you could help type out the monthly parish bulletin. Maybe you don't have a monthly bulletin, because the priest doesn't have time. Maybe you are the person to help.
There was a time when every parish had a sisterhood, often dedicated to St Mary and St Martha, who looked after the church, did cleaning and sewing of vestments and prepared church meals. Do you belong to it? These days, when so many women are out at full-time jobs, I can't see why men should not take part in the activities of sisterhoods. Or then why shouldn't every parish have a sisterhood and a brotherhood? Yes, I know that men are from Mars and women are from Venus - and my matushka knows it too, but you know it's a lonely solar system, when only Venus or only Mars is operating. That's why when you go into a church, you see on the right-hand side of the iconostasis an icon of the Saviour, who became human as a man, and on the left-hand side, an icon of the Mother of God. You need both.
In Russia they used to have brotherhoods and they have them again now. They organise pilgrimages, they build things for church, they help out, they have evenings when they talk about the Faith. Why, every parish ought to have a sisterhood and a brotherhood, each doing its bit. They could be a great support for both single people and for families in the parish.
Do you fast? Do you know about fasting? Do you understand how we fast and why? Have you ever felt that wonderful lightness, the result of fasting, and the ease with which a soul that fasts can pray? If you have not, then you have not lived yet!
What's the icon-corner in your home like? Do you dust it? If it's dusty, maybe it's because your soul is dusty. Do you have an icon in your bedroom? Do you go there often? Do you read the Gospel and Epistle readings there every day? Do you know what they were today? Do you ask questions about what they mean? Do you make a small and modest sign of the cross when you eat in the office, in a restaurant, in the canteen? Or are you one of those people who pretends not to be Orthodox in front of Non-Orthodox? Your duty is to convert Australia, not in a silly, showy, aggressive way, but in a modest and straightforward way, simply by being yourselves, by setting examples.
Do you ever visit any other parishes? Let me tell you another story. It happened last year. There was a Cypriot girl in London who contacted me. She wanted to meet her husband. She was prepared to marry almost anyone, as long as he was Orthodox, any nationality, any jurisdiction, any country, and wanted a family. She had tried dating on the Internet and other services, but with no success. So I made some suggestions, including visiting the other Cypriot parishes in London. Amazingly, she had never been to any of them. Well, she visited another Greek parish in a nearby suburb and she met a man. As far as I know, things are going well, though I haven't yet been invited to the wedding. It's funny how people go round the world for an answer to their problems, but often the answer is right on their own doorstep.
THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED
I come now to a vitally important part of this talk. It's all about music. Long, long ago, when I was a teenager, I can remember an American popular song. It was called 'American Pie'. It had a catchy tune, but there is one line of that song which has stuck in my memory to this day: 'I saw Satan laughing with delight the day the music died'.
You see, I don't remember very much about that song, what it was about or anything, but those words stuck in my memory. I'd like to tell you a story about why they mean so much to me. In the parish in Paris where I served in the nineties, there had been a wonderful priest, Fr Sergei Pfefferman. I didn't know him, but many of the older parishioners had known him. He'd been born in Russia before the Revolution and he was a Jew. One day before the Revolution, passing by an Orthodox church, he had heard the singing. It was his moment of truth. When he heard that singing, he went inside and as soon as the service was over, he asked to be baptised. The same thing happened to our dear friend Jose in Chile. That's how he became Orthodox too.
You see, music is vitally important. As St Nectarius of Optino said: Music is the most cosmic of the arts. The Russian singer, Vertinsky, sang that 'Muzyka kak Lyubov', 'Music is like Love'; it is something that you cannot see and touch and yet it is the most important thing, that touches and changes souls. I am convinced that as long as there is a single church choir left in this world, Satan will not come; as the song says: Satan won't laugh until the music has died. Well, don't let the music die - unless you want to hear Satan laugh.
Well, do you sing in your church choir? Could you learn to sing? Could you help? Could you broaden the repertoire of your church choir? There are some beautiful melodies for different parts of the services sung in different parishes; often they are virtually unknown outside a particular parish. Did you know that there are dozens of melodies for the Thrice-Holy Hymn or the Cherubic Hymn, over a hundred for 'Our Father'? Experience wonder. Extend your church culture. Get to know them. They are wonderful. The state of Church music is something of a barometer of Church life. A church where the singing is good and prayerful, is a church with spiritual life. If the singing is poor in your church, don't blame others, you do something about it, you help to make it better.
At the present time there is a need in some parishes for people who can sing in English. I know from nearly thirty years of experience how controversial this can be. But there are many parishes which have started reading the Gospel and the Epistle in English or have introduced a litany in English. Other parishes want to introduce a Saturday liturgy in English once a month.
There is something here which is very important. A lot of the older generation do not want this. I can understand. Personally, I'm also against it - if it is done badly. But I can assure you, and again this is from experience, that they will want it, if it is done properly. I have heard liturgies sung in English and French very badly. But when it is done properly, opposition melts away.
The 'best' liturgy I ever heard sung in French was by a choir of about eight. Two elderly Russian women were present and at the end of the liturgy they said to me. 'Isn't Slavonic beautiful?'. They had actually not realised that the whole liturgy had been sung in French. Why? Because it had been done so well, it had been faithful to the spirit of Orthodoxy. No fantasies there. Nothing added and nothing taken away. The language issue is a false problem. As long as you're faithful to the Russian Orthodox Tradition and spirit in your parishes, it doesn't matter what language it's in; it's a question of being spiritually faithful, not linguistically faithful.
If you can do that in English, be faithful to your spiritual heritage, even the most Slavophile of your parishioners will accept English. To be honest with you, some people who want services in English do themselves a great disservice, because they do not know how to do it properly. You have to rehearse, have a choir, have a good reader. You can have excellent, prayerful and well-sung services in English - but only if you make the effort to do so. And that means sacrifice. But it is the task of your generation, it is your calling.
WHAT CAN I DO IN MY JOB?
So far I have concentrated on personal attitudes towards the Church and what we can do, but some of you may quite rightly be saying to yourselves; Well, that's all very well, but what about the rest of my life? What can I do? Or is that of no importance? What about that part of my life where I earn my money, where I spend at least forty hours a week? What can I do here'?
Many of you may at the present time be thinking about career paths, about jobs and studies, about choices in life. Maybe some of you are high-flyers, you are going into business, finance, law, politics. And why not? Maybe one of you here is one day going to be the first Orthodox Prime Minister of Australia. You may laugh, but who knows? When I was a student, I didn't think it, but I met someone who became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and another who became the President of Pakistan. They were students with me.
And why shouldn't one of you become the first Orthodox Prime Minister of Australia? We need you. The only thing is, if you are a high flyer, you're going to be in contact with big money. Don't let the money get to you.
The Apostle Paul does not say that money is the root of all evil, but he does say that the love of money is the root of all evil. Money in itself is neither good nor bad. It's what you do with it that counts. I could tell you half a dozen stories from experience about that. God will allow you to be rich, if you are able to use the money wisely, like St Seraphim's father, who built a church which still stands in Kursk today. You can do all sorts of good things with money, but you can also do a lot of evil things with it. And also don't let the power get to you either. Remember Pilate; you can use power for good or for bad. It depends on the person who is given power for a time. Remember the words of that wonderful Russian saint, St Alexander Nevsky: 'God is not in power, but in truth'. Carve those words on your hearts! Write them down now! 'Ne v sile Bog, no v pravde'.
Maybe, though, most of you are not high flyers, you're one of me, a low flyer. The bad news is that if you are a low flyer, you might hit your head on something sticking up. I often do. On the other hand, I've got good news for you. You're probably going to be a lot happier than the high flyers. I know because I've have known several high flyers in my time. They're a pretty miserable lot on the whole.
Maybe, you're cut out to be a secretary, a policeman, a salesman, a shop-assistant, a supermarket-worker, a truck-driver, a teacher, a soldier, a nurse, a homemaker. And why not, there's nothing wrong with that either. The only thing is, like everything else, you can be a bad nurse or a good nurse, a bad truck-driver or a good one, a bad policeman or a good one, a good homemaker or a bad one, and so on. You - be good ones. Do your best at your job, whatever it is. Imagine an Australia where all the shop-assistants or all the truck-drivers are Orthodox. I tell you, it would be a different Australia from the one you are living in now. You'll be amazed at what a difference you can make, just doing what you have to do well. You're a student? Be an Orthodox student - different from the others. Stand out because you really believe. Be the one who changes your teachers' minds about Christianity.
I don't know if anyone here has ever seen an old film called 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Try and see it some time; it's all about someone who does his best in a small town and is forever regretting that he didn't go off and hit the big time. So he feels frustrated and that his life is futile and wasted. He doesn't think that all his sacrifices are worth it. But one day he has a vision and he sees what life around him would have been like, if he hadn't been doing his best in his little corner of the world. He understands that he has made the difference. Go and watch that film and see what a difference just one person can make. And remember that the person who can make the difference is YOU.
In my view, Orthodox Christianity is the yeast in the dough. It's what makes society stop being a soggy, doughy mass and makes it Risen, like Christ. I've lived in Non-Orthodox societies; there, because they fear death, people wander around with death in their eyes and dead hearts, because they fear death. I've also seen little groups, parishes and villages where everyone's Orthodox: they've got life in their eyes. They've got life in their eyes because they've got life in their souls, in their guts, the spirit's burning inside them. They're not dead and they do not fear death. Orthodoxy is the religion of life, the celebration of life. Christ is the Giver of Life; He even gave life to those in the tombs! And Orthodoxy is the religion of Christ and therefore the religion of Life.
I just mentioned an old film, 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Now I want to mention another one, a recent one, a comedy. It's called 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'. It's all about this love of life and energy in the Orthodox Church. Although it's about Greeks in Canada, it could be about Russians or Greeks or anyone else who's Orthodox in Australia. After all, we Orthodox are all one big family. If you've never seen that film, go and see it with some friends. It shows the life that Orthodox have. It's the life in Christ, the life in our eyes, in our souls, in our guts, the flame of faith that keeps us alive.
Well, back to the question: 'What can I do?' The answer is 'a lot', but only if we work with God. 'No pains, no gains'. That's theology, and of course that's also common sense, because all true theology is Orthodox common sense and all Orthodox common sense is theological.
I'd like to end and leave you with two thoughts. They're both advertising slogans, one is English and one is worldwide. That's appropriate, because being English Orthodox I am English but I am also worldwide.
The first slogan is one used by the British Army to recruit new soldiers: 'Be the best; join the Army'. Well, it's time for us Orthodox to reclaim that slogan because the British Army stole it from us. Let's make it ours, here's our version: 'Be the best; be faithful to Christ and His Church'.
The second slogan is one used by a multinational company, Pepsi-Cola: 'Think different'. Because as Orthodox, even though we are in the here and now, we are still different.
Well, you may forget everything else I have said today, but this message, a message of five words, is what I leave to all you Australian Orthodox today and which I want you to remember always: 'Be the best; think different'.